The OER Content Trap

Recently I’ve been following  a discussion about the future of OER (Open Educational Resources). Most of the discussion has been via blog posts between David Wiley (@opencontent) and Rajiv Jhangiani (@thatpsychprof).  Others have contributed via Twitter.  It’s a friendly exchange with the key blog posts having been David’s

and Rajiv’s

The discussion is not really a new one. It’s the question of how to promote OER. There has been for a while two “camps” or points of view.  To simplify (or oversimplify) the question:  To expand OER use do we argue the “free textbooks” aspect emphasizing retain and reuse, or do we argue the “open pedagogy” practices aspect and emphasize revise and remix powers.  The points are, of course, well made and I’m not writing here to disagree.

Rather, what I want to suggest is that we’ve fallen into a trap by our use of the word “resources”.  We need to stop thinking about “resources” period.  No more OER.

Yes, I have a proposed replacement – wait for it.  First, let me explain where I’m coming from. The past couple of weeks I’ve been reading a book called The Content Trap by Bharat Anand.  Read it. Do it. It’s a highly readable, story-laden book about business strategy for digital businesses. But despite being so accessible, it’s also strongly supported by good research and the economics of business strategy.  Trust me. I’ve been a full-time academic for the past 15 years, but I’ve spent nearly four decades in the business strategy world. I spent a good 20+ years working on these kinds of issues: how to expand adoption of a new technology/product/process/service and how to compete. I spent a lot of time a few years ago helping to craft strategy for a college.  I don’t praise business strategy books easily. Most are crap or pablum. The Content Trap is not. It is based on both sound empirics AND sound economics and behavioral analyses.  The oversimplified, too short TL;DR version of Content Trap is this: focusing on the product is a trap. It’s the connections that count: connections between products, between customers, between producers.

Rajiv is right that part of the problem is changing minds and certainly understanding the relevant psychology should inform our advocacy.  David is also right about a very important thing: we are competing against the for-profit publishers and the publishers are pivoting their strategies towards platforms.  But the essence we’re facing is a strategic competitive problem.  It’s the Open folks vs. the for-profit, lock-down, lock-in publishers.  I think by focusing on the “resources”, the content, we’ve fallen into the content trap.  We worry about how to finance the costs of production of “free” textbooks. We worry about competing for adoption of OER texts vs. the publisher texts. We’re trapped into focusing on the content.  Even when we talk about open educational practices or pedagogy, OEP, we’re still focused on the content because we focus on how the content is used.

We’re not alone in this trap. Nearly all higher ed institutions are there too.  They almost all think their special sauce is are the courses they teach or the research publications they produce. They’re wrong.  Similarly, the special sauce in open education isn’t the OER, the resources, books, videos, and content. The real special value is in the connections people make, the community that forms, and the identities they forge.

So what should we be focusing on? Open Education Connections or Open Educational Communities. OEC.

I’ll have more to say in the coming month, God willing.  I know this is just kind of a tease so far but I don’t have time tonight to go further. In my own head I’m beginning to visualize winning strategies built around this concept of OEC’s. It’s a lot more complex than just a simple name, great strategies always are.

I’ve got a panel discussion at OER17 conference coming up in April.  I’m trying to put together a couple longer blog posts in preparation for that.  Right now I’m thinking this OEC idea might fit.


Death of the American Dream

Note: This post is for both my talk at the Lansing Community College Centre for Engagement and for this week’s class discussions in Comparative Systems.

lady_madonnaFor those of us who have grown up in the late 20th century or the early 21st century, the American Dream has been a familiar relative – an Uncle Sam that was always there. The American Dream was the myth that united us. More than any other nation perhaps, the U.S. has always been defined more by concepts and ideals – these myths or stories – than by the traditions of blood, tribal roots, or land that defined so many other nations throughout history.

It can be argued that the American Dream, or at least our modern conception of it, was born in 1931 in pages written by James Truslow Adams.  Wikipedia recounts for us:

The American Dream is a national ethos of the United States, the set of ideals (democracy, rights, liberty, opportunity, and equality) in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility for the family and children, achieved through hard work in a society with few barriers. In the definition of the American Dream by James Truslow Adams in 1931, “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.[1]

The American Dream is rooted in the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims that “all men are created equal” with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”[2]

There are lot of ways to operationalize the concept of the American Dream, but for these purposes I’m going to basically identify three features, all of which are primarily economic.

The “American Dream” meant that anybody in America, regardless of birth or station or inheritance, could through ordinary hard work do the following:

  • “do better than Dad”. In other words, income and wealth for each succeeding generation should be significantly higher.  In inflation adjusted terms, sons and daughters should make more money and have more wealth than their dad or mother did at the same age.
  • homeownership – Americans should have their own property -usually a freestanding house.
  • upward mobility – it should be possible through strength of character and hard work – “merit” – to rise up to higher income and social classes than what a person was born into.  This is the classic Horatio Alger story.

If the American Dream were a person born in 1931 when Adams coined the phrase, then by these criteria we can describe his (her) life as:

  • a hard scrabble childhood in the Depresssion
  • emerging as a teenager in 1945 from World War II, the American Dream hits a stride.  The dream was real, if unevenly distributed across races, between 1946 and roughly 1980.
  • Starting around 1980, our midlife Dream now begins to slow down. It is increasingly faking it by borrowing money to keep up appearances of success but not really making it happen.
  • In this century, the Dream collapses.  Slow economic growth, rising income inequality, and massive shifts in economic policies mean then end of the American Dream.

By the time the Millenials arrive on the scene as young adults, the concept of American Dream is more a nightmare or cruel joke than a dream.

From here I’m going to try to explain what has happened using mostly data and graphs.  First we’re going to look at the evidence that indeed, upward mobility and the ability to “earn more than dad” are dead.  For the next section here, I’m going to use graphs from

Next, we’ll take a look at the specifics of how that has affected so-called “millennials”:

If we have time, I’ll speculate on the causes and what can be done.

My slides that I’ll use in addition to the graphs in the above links are here.  If this embedded view won’t display in your browser or allow you to download, use this link:

Cannot Remain Silent

Bill McBride at Calculated Risk and the New York Times today capture my thoughts:

These are not normal times, and I can’t just post economic data and remain silent on other issues.

Mr. Trump’s executive order is un-American, not Christian, and hopefully unconstitutional. This is a shameful act and no good person can remain silent.

From the NY Times: Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban Is Cowardly and Dangerous

The first casualties of this bigoted, cowardly, self-defeating policy were detained early Saturday at American airports just hours after the executive order, ludicrously titled “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States,” went into effect. It must have felt like the worst trick of fate for these refugees to hit the wall of Donald Trump’s political posturing at the very last step of a years long, rigorous vetting process. This ban will also disrupt the lives and careers of potentially hundreds of thousands of immigrants who have been cleared to live in America under visas or permanent residency permits.

That the order, breathtaking in scope and inflammatory in tone, was issued on Holocaust Remembrance Day spoke of the president’s callousness and indifference to history, to America’s deepest lessons about its own values.

The order lacks any logic. It invokes the attacks of Sept. 11 as a rationale, while exempting the countries of origin of all the hijackers who carried out that plot and also, perhaps not coincidentally, several countries where the Trump family does business. The document does not explicitly mention any religion, yet it sets a blatantly unconstitutional standard by excluding Muslims while giving government officials the discretion to admit people of other faiths.

Republicans in Congress who remain quiet or tacitly supportive of the ban should recognize that history will remember them as cowards.

WPCampus Online – Ten Plus Ways to Teach With WordPress, a.k.a Open Education

Please join me today at the first WPCampus Online conference. It’s free. If you’re involved with higher education you’ll find it helpful – regardless of whether you’re experienced or new to WordPress.   I’ll be talking about examples of using WordPress to engage students and create an open education.  Here’s the full description:

All times are listed in Central Standard Time.

Date: Monday, January 23, 2017 Time: 2:00 – 2:45 p.m. Location: Room 2

The Magic of Teaching Using WordPress: 10+ Ways to Easily Transform Classes & Excite Students

Open Learning means no more boring disposable assignments and no more locked-down closed LMS’s. In Open Learning, students become to become creators and publishers, instead of passive receptacles for lecture. WordPress is the magic that enables professors to create open learning experiences such as student portfolios, writing-for-public assignments, collaborative open texts, and more. In this session, I will describe ten (or more) ideas and designs for how to customize a WordPress site for a particular instructional use case. For each, I will provide ideas for how faculty can get started themselves – regardless of whether their institution has a formal blogs or domains program. All examples are based on our experiences at the Lansing Community College Open Learn Lab or at some other Domains-of-One’s-Own hosting universities.

Here’s a link to my slides in case this viewer doesn’t display them or you want to download.  Links to all examples are in the slides.

Scrooge and MacroEconomics

This lovely little podcast comes in just in time for Christmas.  Steve Keen explains how Ebenezer Scrooge most certainly could have been even richer – and made the poor richer too – had he not been such a miser.  Even better, perhaps the enlightened Scrooge at the end of the story after the visits from the spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Future should have run for Parliament and made everyone much better off.  God bless us all, everyone.

The Mastodon In the Room

I’m writing this post because I can’t fit my thoughts into 500 characters. This is a very loose set of (probably) ill-connected thoughts triggered by discussions on  If you don’t know what Mastodon, it’s a kind of open source, decentralized/federated alternative to Twitter. Sort of.  Of course some have said it’s an alternative to Slack. Sort of.  Who knows?  This post is an attempt to add to that confusion.  If you’re still interested but don’t know Mastodon, check out Maha Bali’s piece on a Social Network of Our Own.

What prompted this post was my own post on Mastodon a day or so ago:


Part of what I love about Mastodon (as compared to Twitter) is the 500 vs. 140 char limit.  It makes a huge difference. It enables more thoughtful posts – as in they not only express deeper/richer thoughts, but reading the posts often requires more thought.  They’re more engaging.  It makes a very happy medium IMO between Twitter-like “conversations”, which are really just rapid exchanges of 1-liner quips, vs. the blogosphere which is more like an exchange of letters.

First some semantics. I’m using the following words to mean:

  • Followees:  the people a person “follows” on the social media. In other words the people I’m interesting in reading their stuff.  This is in contrast to followers who are the set of  people who read what I write.
  • Stream:  the reverse chrono list of posts that person reviews as their primary way of finding out what their followees said.  In Twitter, it’s the main stream you read.  Mastodon is different because there’s the Public Stream of all things (not really accessible except via API in Twitter) and the Home stream.  The Home stream is closest to the Twitter main stream.
  • Scale:  more of the same.  Example: If I add 50 more followees who are all interested in the same types of things such as Open Ed, I’m scaling up.
  • Scope: adding stuff/things/followees who are different from the rest.  Increasing scope means increased heterogeneity.  For example, if I already have 50 followees that tend towards the open ed-ish, and then I add 20 folks who don’t talk open ed but talk about games and then add 10 more who talk football, I’m increasing my scope.
  • Filter:  a rather tech term that allows for creating a subset of the stream by applying some boolean logic to some aspect of the toots/tweets. Filtering is often done on tags but could conceivably be done on text items or names.
  • Rooms:  a non-tech term used to describe the experience of having/seeing/speaking with a group of particular tooters/tweeters

Here’s what’s occurred to me so far:

  •  Scale in the Stream:  Twitter’s small, short 140 char style makes it possible to scan/review the a stream a lot more feasible when there are larger numbers of contributors to your stream. Of course, if you have enough folks you’re following on Twitter, the primary stream you see becomes difficult to deal with but mostly just because the sheer volume of tweets per minute.   The mix of short and longer toots on Mastodon, make it harder to cognitively deal with a stream much sooner as you scale up followers.  This is because the longer posts encourage more cognitive engagement and (at least amongst my peeps) more responses that are at least cognitively linked.  I suspect a smaller number of followees (people you follow and hence read in your home stream) will trigger a  feeling of “maxed out” in Mastodon than in Twitter.
  • Scope in the Stream: This problem of cognitive load & time involved to process the stream gets particularly bad if you increase scope.  I can easily process two tweets on different subjects that are juxtapositioned.  They tend to stand alone and they’re short and shallow cognitively.  Toots are much harder when scope increases.
  • On the counter side to increased cognitive load is the need to have some openness to new topics, new speakers, etc. That’s often where the serendipity comes from.  We don’t want to last that aspect because then it just becomes an echo chamber.
  • I don’t think filters can get us the “room” experience.  Filters are text-specific somehow: tag, keywords, etc.  Further, setting up filters must be done in advance but that then precludes the serendipity and closes off the open.
  • Jeroen Smeets asked if what we were (I was) talking about was creating a Storify type thing.   In some ways, yes, it would be like creating a Storify, except Storify is dead – it’s an archive of the past.  I’m interested in viewing my live stream in ways that give me the storify experience in real time.

So I’ve come up the idea of a “lens” or “lenses”.   I’m aware that I might be reinventing something called lists, but since I’m not really familiar with Twitter “lists”, so be it.  Won’t be the first time I’ve reinvented the preexisting.

Let’s start with the public stream. It’s everything that’s coming through the network. While I like the ability to see the public timeline stream on Mastodon, as soon as Mastodon users start to achieve really large numbers it will be useless for direct human reading except for the occasional dip into a small segment of it just  for grins. Nonetheless, the public timeline stream holds great potential because with open source, who knows what folks might create that can make use of that computer-wise some day.

A lens is a way that a user can view the giant public timeline.  On Twitter, there’s only one lens per user.  That lens creates your home timeline stream from the all-public stream.  The primary element used to create the Twitter lens for each user is the list of your followees.  If a Tweet in the big timeline involves your followee (from, to, mentioned) it becomes visible through your lens.  This is the original functionality that we fell in love with on Twitter.

What happened?  Well two things.  First, Twitter expanded your lens without the your involvement by using algorithms to select tweets to put in your stream even if you didn’t want to follow those people. A lot of this advertising and “promoted tweets” related. Part of it is because Twitter as a company  also needed to boost the amount of time you spent on your stream.  All of this is because of business model & $.  Mastodon should be able to avoid this because there’s no VC/investors to be made rich (although we need to make sure @gargron and others live a decent life!) and because the decentralized federated servers model allows what I expect will actually be a lesser cost per toot in the total system than the centralized system of Twitter.

But there’s another thing that expands your Twitter lens.  Twitter needs/wants numbers:  users, tweets, views, minutes spent. That’s what they need to monetize. To do that they enable trolls.  Suppose for a moment there are not-quite-human like entities we’ll call trolls and their mission is make people miserable on social media.  Trolls can find you and force their way into your stream – force their way through your lens.  Your only alternative is to be reactive and block everything the troll ever says in the future.

To boost numbers, Twitter also encourages the use of bots.  Your human friends have a cap on how many tweets than can make per hour or minute.  Bots don’t. Your stream starts to get polluted with trolls and bots. You get tired. You feel attacked.

So how do we avoid this?  First, we need to build a culture in Mastodon that numbers don’t matter. It’s about the conversation, not the monetization.

Second, we -note how I bravely use the royal “we” knowing I can’t code this thing, 😉 – might want to pay attention to code or sign-up provisions to verify that there’s a human at the keyboard/phone making those toots.  Machine made toots will just turn the place into a sewage treatment plant.

Third, I’d like to see a two-level lens created.  The first lens is the existing Home stream: it’s a subset of the public timeline stream where all I can see are those people I follow and anything directly connected (like a mention or reply or boost) by/about one of my followees.  This lens should be done at the server level.  It’s what I should get back when I refresh.

But what if I could define for myself (user defined) a second-level lens:  a subset of  my followees.  In the user interface, I can turn the secondary lens on-or-off. I could define 2, 3, or so different second level lenses.  Selecting a lens means I see my home stream as if I only had that subset of followees as my entire stream.  This would enable folks to deal with their social connections as they would in real life. My home stream is the comments of everybody I know and care about in my life. But I am surrounded primarily by academics when I’m at work – it’s my academic secondary lens that’s activated there.  When I go home, I turn off the academic lens and put on my family-neighbors lens.

A user-defined lens would also allow me to more frequently watch/monitor my stream for the people that I consider time sensitive. For example, for me the folks I think of as “open ed academics” are people I want to monitor frequently during the day regardless of what they say.  The folks I follow that are more techies – say WordPress or Mastodon developers, are folks that I want to know what they’re saying/thinking, but I might only want to see / hear it once a day.  I could do that.

The lens concept, by being user/viewer defined, also means we don’t have to have social agreement a priori on a hashtag, or who’s in or who’s not.  I see the room as I want to see it.  I might think of you as part of my “open ed” lens.  Assuming we follow each other, you might want to see my stuff as part of your “white guy blowhards” lens.  To each their own.

The lens concept also allows a user to see less of a possible troll without necessarily having to permanently block them.

Well, that’s my $0.0185 worth.  (inflation has reduced the value of two cents).