Happy Halloween!

Boo! Although I can’t decide which is scarier tonight, the upcoming election or the fact that most people think one of those guys can fix the financial crisis. If ever anything called for a Vincent Price laugh, that’s it….

The Naming of Names

Recently an American researcher traveled to Barbados and on finding that the world’s smallest snake lived there, cataloged it and named it after his wife, with the binomial Leptotyphlops carlae.

Just one problem — astonishingly, Bajans already knew all about the thread snake, their name for the tiny ophidian living in their midst. And some of them aren’t very impressed that a foreigner has dropped by to rename their fauna as though they were somehow unaware of it.

I’m with the Bajans on this one. All too often academics from the developed world get credit for “discoveries” that give no credit to indigenous peoples who knew about them long before. I’m reminded of how old people in Dominica knew to eat old bread when they were ill long before Alexander Fleming isolated penicillin from bread mold.

I also thought it was interesting that all the images I’ve seen that show how small the thread snake is use a U.S. quarter as a comparison object rather than a Bajan one, especially since they’re the same size. I suppose I understand the point of using an object the size of which is widely recognizable but why not use a culturally neutral one, like a pencil — or a ruler, for that matter?

George Carlin, R.I.F.P.

Fresh off of a week’s worth of hagiographic logorrhea from the chattering class after the untimely death of Tim Russert comes the truly lamentable passing of George Carlin.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Russert will be be missed. I found him an interesting interviewer who did occasionally ask tough questions of his interviewees despite their being his colleagues in the political/media elite.

The loss of Carlin, however, is truly a shame. I know him more from his recent work, as the goofy Archbishop in Dogma and in the work he did for kid’s entertainment, like narrating Thomas the Tank Engine stories and playing the voice of Fillmore the spacey VW bus in Cars — yes, I have a three year old son.

I’m aware, however, that long before this Carlin was a free speech pioneer, that his “Seven Words You Can Never Say On TV” routine dragged all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, leading, unfortunately, to one of their many failures to defend individual liberties. But he didn’t always lose, and comedians have cited him as an influence and inspiration ever since. Carlin’s sort of iconoclasm is vital for avoiding a descent into authoritarian stagnation. He’ll be missed.

Yes, but can you really learn that way?

So, the last step before applying to any of these doctoral programs, is, of course, to finish the Master’s degree. I have two courses to go, but now that I work at Marymount I figured I’d rather take two courses there for free this term and transfer them back to GW to wrap things up rather than pay to take courses at GW, however good they may be.

So because of my concern about using too much leave, and because GW was concerned that the course I was going to take might be too similar to another I’ve already taken, I found an alternative, a nice course called “Cross-cultural/International Curricula” that, while occurring in a classroom rather than online, is still also an extremely good match for my interests. I sent the syllabus to my faculty advisor at GW, Ryan Watkins, and his response in part was:

Given the situation this sounds like a fine choice to me… it does have a nice match with your long-term interests. My only disappointment with the syllabus is that it will be a campus-based course. Can you really learn in that archaic format? Do they have to check your ID to make sure that it is really you coming to class? Can people really learn with out continuous access to the Web? Hahahahaaaa

It’s certainly nice to see butt-in-seat learning get some of the same undeserved criticism that distance learning gets for a change! Of course, at the same time, I’m also glad Ryan approved the course, you know, despite his reservations.

Snapshot of Academic Legitimacy Positions

I enjoy posting to various forums that cover distance learning and academic legitimacy. Different forums on this subject attract people with different perspectives, some where the dominant view is that only regional accreditation is good enough (“RA or no way”), and others where most people believe that so long as a program is operating legally, it’s okay.

I participate mostly on forums that tend toward the former position, but as I’ve thought about these issues, and that thinking has evolved over time, I thought I’d offer a snapshot of what I think now. I’ve changed my mind about some things, so this may differ from some things I’ve written in the past. I may change my mind again, so this may differ from some things I’ll write in the future. Still, here goes:

  1. Regional accreditation is not the only legitimate sort. There’s nothing wrong with the CHEA approved national (including faith-based) accreditors. There are also institutions that are only state approved (i.e., unaccredited) that are legitimate as well. All other things being equal, it’s better to have credentials from a regionally accredited institution than a nationally accredited or unaccredited one because of perceptions in the marketplace. It’s rarely that simple, however, in that all other things are rarely equal. I’ve had the opportunity to practice what I’m preaching here, in that last year I convinced the administration at Southeastern University to switch from a policy of only accepting regionally accredited transfer credit to also accepting nationally accredited transfer credit.
  2. At the same time, I don’t think it should be a federal requirement that all institutions accredited by a CHEA approved agency should have to accept all credit from all others. This isn’t because I think that nationally accredited institutions are bad, but because I don’t think that’s any of Uncle Sam’s business.
  3. Proprietary institutions are not inherently worse than non-profit or public ones. However, since many people perceive that they are, it makes their credentials less valuable, and all other things being equal, credentials from a non-profit or public institution are better to have on one’s resume. (In this case, all other things often are reasonably equal, outside of specializations like test piloting, I can’t think of a program offered by a proprietary school that’s not offered by a public school at the same price or less.)
  4. Just because another country’s Ministry of Education approves of an institution in their country doesn’t mean it’s legitimate. This is the GAAP theory of international education, and while it’s a reasonable rule of thumb, it’s the start of the process, not the end of it. At the same time I’ve seen some people respond to universities from small and/or poor countries with kneejerk skepticism, and I find that’s unwarranted.
  5. About a year ago, I wrote the following throwaway comment on a forum:

    “If I were one of those lucky/smart guys who had a lot of money and not enough to do with it, I think I’d start a Center for Academic Credential Integrity and hire a few people to do nothing but scout out those who have bogus credentials and inform local media and board of trustees of the scandals in their midst.”

    In retrospect, this is one of the more obnoxious things I’ve ever said, and I withdraw it. In reality, I wouldn’t do any such thing.

So that’s where I stand at this point.

Covering the Public Domain’s Back

One of the things I found surprising about international law was that it’s not always possible, or at least easy, for an author to place his or her work into the public domain. There are civil law countries in which so-called moral rights cannot be waived. This has been an issue for me, in that I wish to promote dedication to the public domain as the most practical way of releasing content that can be used, copied, distributed, and remixed without any possibility of conflict.

Now Dave Wiley of the OpenContent Foundation has proposed a license that reserves no rights at all. In other words, it’s a license the terms of which are functionally identical to a public domain dedication but with a completely different legal basis. While I’m not a lawyer, it seems to me that if other open licenses (such as those from Creative Commons) are valid throughout the world than this approach would be an ideal complement to a public domain dedication. For jurisdictions that recognize an author’s right to disclaim intellectual entitlements, the public domain dedication would apply. For those that do not, the license would take up the slack.

My only objection is that he’s referring to it as an “Open Education License”, stemming from his original intention to devise a license that would prevent incompatible copyleft provisions from keeping content segregated in separate unremixable silos. He’s right that this is a pressing issue for the open education movement, but I think that this license has much broader potential than for just educational materials, and hope that he ends up selecting a more generic name for it as discussion on the matter continues.

Excuse my French

There’s a lot of discussion in the free culture movement about the two definitions of “free” that we use to describe our work. Summarized well by Wikipedia, the definitions are often described as:

  1. “Free as in beer”, or gratis, where those using free content or software don’t have to pay any money to do so; and
  2. “Free as in freedom”, or libre, where those using free content or software have the right to make derivative works.

What I find interesting are the suggestions to use the words gratis and libre to make this differentiation clear. The argument is that it’s necessary to borrow these words from French because there aren’t separate words in English that denote these different meanings of freedom.

Whatever flaws the English language may have, however, a stilted vocabulary is not among them. Rather than import more words, why not simply use ones we already have? Specifically, I suggest that free as in beer can be described as costless, and free as in freedom can be described as unencumbered. They’re accurate, unambiguous, and already present in English. Let’s use them!

Goals for the Free Culture Movement

Over at Free Culture, Kevin Driscoll has asked people to write a brief bit on how they see the world being different after five more years of the free culture movement. While I appreciate the artistic creativity of multimedia mashups and the like, my concerns are mostly in the open education part of the free culture movement. So in keeping with that, I’ll briefly set forth three goals and add some explanation.

Goals

Commonality Goal: We as an open education movement will have drafted a declaration of commonalities similar to the Budapest Open Access Initiative, and that policymakers will have begun to sign on to it.

OER Output Goal: At least in the English language and hopefully others, we will have made significant progress toward the goal of a set of free curricula in all disciplines at the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels.

Diversity Goal: There will be an expectation throughout the open education movement that open educational resources (OERs) will be available not just in English, but whatever languages on instruction parents and students think best, and that different societies with different contexts will be able to localize content to suit their needs.

Narrative

The recent iCommons Summit in Dubrovnik, Croatia was well represented by different segments of the open education movement, and one of our conclusions was that we would like to take the main points on which we all agree in time for next year’s Summit in Sapporo so that we can walk away from there having drafted a Sapporo Declaration.

Having a complete set of free curricula in all disciplines at all levels by 2015 is a goal of WikiEducator, a Commonwealth of Learning project. I think that it’s possible, but that it will be difficult and will require momentum now. Eight years may sound like a long time, but it really isn’t.

The output and diversity goals may seem to be putting in opposite directions a bit, and to some extent I suppose they are. It will be challenging enough to have a single set of curricula by 2015, much less have localized variations. Still, I can see that we as a movement will have to balance these objectives.