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.


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.


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.

The “Playlist” Model of Course Development: Using Closed Content to make Open Courses

Note: The following was published in the 2007 iCommons Annual, although it appeared there in a much more colourful and polished fashion. Kudos to Rebecca Kahn for it coming out looking so fantastic!


iCommons Summit 2007Much of the discussion surrounding the development of open educational resources has revolved around the development of open content, whether in the public domain or released under a permissive license such as the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.

An alternative approach, best suited for developing online courses, is the model of courses as “playlists”. This model builds an open educational resource by referring to materials that are available online. For example, a course could be built as a sequence of readings, video clips, and other materials that while proprietary and closed, still cost the student nothing to view online. These can then be combined with lecture notes and quizzes that are developed specifically to tie the disparate elements of the course together.

The purpose of this is to retain as much of the freedom of open educational resources as possible, while also taking advantage of the vast wealth of proprietary closed materials. The cost to the student remains zero, and the course itself can be released as an open educational resource, free for all to use, copy, and modify.

OpenCourseWare from MIT

One example of this model is the OpenCourseWare (OCW) project from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Widely praised as one of the premier initiatives developing open educational resources, the lion’s share of the project’s output consists of courses that are made up of a syllabus and related lecture notes. Typically, the syllabus will specify a commercial textbook that accompanies the course, and the student will gain most of his or her instruction from reading the textbook. The lecture notes, tests, and other course materials serve the secondary purposes of elaborating key points and evaluating the student’s retention of the material.

A typical OCW course is thus similar to the playlist model in that it refers to an external resource, in this case various chapters of a commercial textbook, which are used during the instruction phase of each unit of the course.

Playlists: The Next Step

While the MIT model is a step in the right direction, most of its courses still rely on expensive commercial textbooks to cover the bulk of the course’s material. To take the model to its logical conclusion, the course designer must start with the syllabus as an outline, and select from among various articles and other online resources so that for each lesson an appropriate resource is covering the material to be learnt.

For example, a course designer might begin by creating an outline of a course divided into weeklong units. After determining the educational objective for each unit, the course designer will draw on his or her own expertise as well as those of colleagues, subject matter experts, librarians, and the like to find the best online resource to cover that material.

In addition, a variety of different materials can be assigned for each unit, thereby accommodating students who have different learning styles. For some students, a series of online encyclopedia articles may be appropriate, whereas for others a set of video clips or a Flash-powered interactive demonstration may be better for teaching the same material. In an advanced implementation, a course designer can produce multiple paths through a set of different materials, and students can be tested on their learning styles in advance, and shepherded through a playlist of course materials that are best suited for them.

Updating Playlist Model Courses

The modular design of playlist model courses brings certain advantages when it comes to keeping courses up to date. By consisting largely of smaller learning objects from disparate sources, these courses can be easily modified in keeping with a variety of objectives.

First, and most obviously, when a course covers material that changes rapidly in the real world, such as those on Finance or Accounting, or those that cover recent history, it is easy to change out a reading or other linked component than it is to rewrite an entire course. Even if a course covers material that does not change, as new online resources become available, or as those who maintain courses simply find resources of which they had hitherto been unaware, the courses can be quickly updated.

This is especially advantageous for courses that are set up as OERs, but which by necessity link to closed and proprietary resources. As OER development projects release more and more material, references to those closed resources can be changed out for references to open resources, with the ultimate goal of there being enough open resources that it is no longer useful to link to closed ones.

Responding to Anticipated Objections

Some may say that a course will have more consistency and thus be easier for a student if it is based primarily on a single text written by an author or team of authors with a unified style. However, in practice, instructors often assign secondary texts to cover important units of material, and even within a primary text will skip around in a sequence unintended by the author.

Others might argue that most of the materials available to be used in the playlist model are not intended as course materials, and thus will be pedagogically inferior to texts that are designed specifically for that purpose. However, not only is there an increasing amount of material designed for the purpose, but the inclusion of lecture notes designed specifically for the course can smooth out any rough edges that such materials might have. Furthermore, practitioner literature is increasingly available online, such as through, that is used for continuing education in many fields, and academic working papers are available from several sources, such as

A major objection is that this model of course development is useful for courses meant for students with access to the Internet, but is not useful for those on the far side of the digital divide. While this is correct, the model at least is of value to some, and insofar as it promotes development of open resources to replace closed ones, it ultimately builds an environment that will help those who cannot yet use the Internet.


Course design on a playlist model provides many of the advantages of Open Educational Resources even when a great deal of useful educational material is closed and proprietary. Such playlists are easy to build and maintain and help students today even as they serve as a catalyst for the development of new materials that all can use freely tomorrow.

Yes, Jamaica, and no, it wasn’t a vacation

Charles Evans and I presented our paper on the use of open content in curriculum with implications for the developing world at Pan-Commonwealth Forum 4 in Ocho Rios, Jamaica from October 30 to November 2. It was really neat to meet so many people who knew what we were talking about, and who had similar interests. No one believed that a trip to Jamaica could possibly not be a vacation, but since the only time I was on the beach I was wearing a tie I think I can safely declare that it wasn’t. Of course, the resort where the conference was held was all inclusive, meaning five days of open bar goodness, but what was I supposed to do? Not take advantage of it?