Announcing Open Attribute

I am so proud to announce the launch of Open Attribute, a suite of tools that makes attributing openly licensed content as easy as cut and paste. Today we are launching browser add-ons for Firefox and Chrome that detect Creative Commons license information on a website, and pull that information into a properly formatted attribution that complies with the terms of the license. We have an Opera add-on coming soon, and our next steps will be to build plugins for WordPress and Drupal. This project is a mere three months in the making, and it has been incredibly exciting to be a part of.

Allow me to indulge in the sharing of a little back story. I’ve been involved with Open Attribute since its inception at the Drumbeat Festival last November. It all started in the peer learning tent on the first day of the festival, where Jane Park from Creative Commons was leading a workshop on open content. We broke into small groups to consider the question “What are the barriers to reuse of open content?” More and more people and institutions are publishing open content, but the reuse rates, as far as anyone can tell, are very low. What’s the point of open content if people aren’t using and building on it? After we came up with a list of barriers, each group focused on one and asked “What might some solutions be to this barrier?”

The group I was in quickly zeroed in on attribution, specifically, how confusing people find it. All of us had heard from individuals who resist using open content because they don’t understand how to comply with the attribution requirement. Workshops and how-to guides and step by step flowcharts haven’t reduced the confusion, so we thought, “What if we can just create attributions automatically? Like the citation generators in academic databases? Click a button and you can have a properly formatted citation in MLA style, APA style, Chicago style. Technically, there is no reason why we couldn’t do a similar thing for attribution.”

As soon as this idea came forward (no one remembers who said it first, but I think it was Jane), we all got really excited. We knew we were on to something. Here was a tool we could build to solve a problem that training alone hadn’t solved. And we had come up with it in a setting that was all about connecting the people with ideas to the people with the skills to make those ideas a reality.

At the end of the first day, we reported out on our idea to the whole Drumbeat festival, and a couple of people from Mozilla quickly reached out to offer support with coordinating the project. Several of us spent the second day of the conference working on an outline of the idea, some basic specifications for the tools, and some text that would help us recruit other interested participants. Most of that work is still hanging out in our neglected wiki page.

Mozilla asked me if I would be the “educator lead” for this project. I had no idea what that meant. I don’t think they did either. Nathan Yergler from Creative Commons was to be the “technical lead”. We created a Google group, participated in a couple of Drumbeat conference calls, and through some magical mix of Mozilla outreach, Twitter, and luck, we ended up with a great team of people who had the right skills and a huge amount of energy. At this point, I don’t think anyone knows or cares who was supposed to be the “lead” on the project; everyone pitched in and worked hard, and we made decisions on everything from development priorities to icon design more or less by consensus. Three months later here we are, launching our first tools.

I have never worked on a project like this before. Partly it’s that it was significantly more technical than anything I’ve ever done, with techier collaborators – I had to learn how to use IRC! But mostly it’s that here was a group of people, from vastly different personal and professional backgrounds, most of whom had never met in person, scattered all over the world, who spent substantial time working on Open Attribute just because they cared about it. Yes yes, this is what free and open software is all about, but I’m not a programmer, so I’d never experienced this kind of distributed collaboration before now. It is awesome. I am so proud of what our team has accomplished, and I’m excited to get to work on the next phase of development. Oh, and also, the add-ons themselves are great. I am already using them. They make attributing CC licensed content so much easier. Go install one.

$2 billion dollars to improve access to educational resources. That’s right. $2 billion.

Today the Department of Labor announced a solicitation for grant applications under the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant Program (TAA CCCT), which will invest $2 billion “to provide community colleges and other eligible institutions of higher education with funds to expand and improve their ability to deliver education and career training programs.” All of the materials created with program funds must be released under a CC-BY license. This is $2 billion dollars from the United States government that is in part explicitly to fund the production of open educational resources. Hal Plotkin alluded that something big was coming in his talk at Open Ed in November. This is a really big something.

A mini link round-up:

The full program announcement

The Department of Labor press release

The grants will provide postsecondary institutions with an opportunity to develop and make innovative use of a variety of evidence-based learning materials, including cutting-edge shared courses and open educational resources. These resources would be available online for free, greatly expanding learning opportunities for students and workers. In addition, these learning tools will help schools and students tailor education so each worker can have a better opportunity for success in the classroom and job market.

Mr. Hal Plotkin himself on the grants and their import

The materials produced as a result of these grants will carry the Creative Commons BY license, which also permits their free derivative use for commercial purposes. That means companies, schools, entrepreneurs, and others will be free to bundle, adapt, or customize the learning materials to create new offerings, products, and services. Schools will be able to affordably offer courses in subject areas and at levels of expertise previously beyond their reach.

Creative Commons, whose licenses make the whole thing possible

Congratulations to The Department of Labor, The Department of Education, and others involved in crafting this important, innovative program. Creative Commons is committed to leveraging this opportunity to create a multiplier effect for public dollars to be used on open, reuseable quality content.

Tech President, “Obama puts dollars behind open sourcing education”

[T]he Obama administration is putting a considerable amount of money — $500 million a year for four years, for a total of $2 billion, or what Secretary of Education Arne Duncan described on a press call as “may be the largest investment into two-year institutions since the GI Bill” — behind the principle [of OER].

Chronicle of Higher Ed, “2-Year colleges get details of $2 billion grant program”

The announcement of the program’s details has been long anticipated by community-college officials. President Obama first proposed a major grant program for community colleges in 2009, shortly after taking office. He originally proposed a $12-billion plan to improve community colleges, called the American Graduation Initiative, but that plan collapsed during negotiations over legislation to overhaul student aid and the nation’s health-care system.

People are going to be talking about this for awhile.

When librarians are obstacles

Heading into the Open Ed Conference and especially the Mozilla Drumbeat Festival, I expected to be one of only a handful of librarians participating. Librarians haven’t been terribly involved or engaged with the open education movement, but our values and missions align so well that I expected to be welcomed by the professors and the edupunks as a peer and fellow traveller. Well, I got the first part right – I met only a couple of librarians all week – but the second, not so much. Imagine my surprise when the other two speakers in the session on libraries and the future of OER spent much of their time criticizing the ways in which librarians have engaged with open education, and lamenting the possibility of librarians being anything other than a liability.

Julià Minguillón, a computer science professor who spoke about digital preservation issues, described attempting to deposit an equation into his university library’s OER repository, only to be told that because his equation did not have a title, it could not be included in the collection. He then went on to criticize librarians’ obsession with the “useless” metadata of “author, title, date.” He argued that if we put librarians in charge of OER repositories (exactly the thing I argued for in my paper), we will sacrifice broad, immediate access in favor long-term preservation and proper metadata schemas.

R. John Robertson gave a paper about the role libraries can play in supporting OER initiatives but a significant portion of his presentation was given over to his concerns about librarian participation in this work. His experience with librarians is that they are so risk averse that the merest hint of a copyright issue is likely to send them running for the hills. Like Minguillón, he had anecdotes to back up his worries about librarians as obstacles in the field of open education.

In a word: Blergh! How did this happen? Why, despite biannual New York Times articles about how modern and hip librarians have become, are we still perceived on our own campuses as fearful impediments to progress?

Okay, I know why. Some librarians are fearful impediments to progress. Some librarians allow perfect metadata to be the enemy of good access. Some libraries, as institutions, do not foster innovation and experimentation, and are deeply resistant to change. It’s so disappointing.

It probably says something about the job I’ve had for the last year and a half that I see this primarily as a failure of management. On the plane to Barcelona I read a column by Meredith Farkas in American Libraries called “Nurturing Innovation: Tips for Managers and Administrators.” She offers a number of excellent suggestions for ways to adjust the institutional culture at libraries to support and embrace innovation: Encourage staff to learn and play, give staff time to experiment with potential new initiatives, keep an open mind, develop a risk tolerant culture. These suggestions kept coming back to me at Open Ed as I struggled to defend librarians and libraries against accusations of stodginess. I wanted to hand the article over to the people who complained about their uptight, change resistant libraries and say, “It doesn’t have to be this way. Go talk to your Dean. Make it better.” I also, in that way that sometimes happens, added one more suggestion to the list, thinking it was from Farkas but it’s from somewhere else, part of a theme that developed at Open Ed: Library administrators must make some room in their budgets for failure.

Innovation and progress can’t happen without failure. It’s how we learn, as individuals and as institutions and as species. Yes, library budgets are tight these days. Tighter than we ever thought they could get. With money so tight, and cuts so deep, it’s easy to think that now is not the time to take risks, but of course, now is exactly the time to take risks. How else will we prepared to address the challenges that await us in next year’s budget cycle, and the one after that, and the one 15 years from now?

To use one relevant example: The current commercial scholarly publishing apparatus is choking us. We know this. Knowing this, we have two choices: We can invest in activities that could ease the financial pressure – open repositories, deposit mandates, awareness campaigns – or we can choke. In this case, many libraries are experimenting, and sometimes those experiments even fail. As Farkas points out, when our experiments fail we still learn something valuable from them, something that can set us on a path to succeed the next time.

It’s not enough simply to encourage our staff to experiment. We need to give them money to play with, to set up a repository or buy a license to a promising tool or hire an expert to train staff in something new. It doesn’t have to be a lot of money, but it does have to be relatively free from strings. And then, we need to make sure our experimenting staff share what they’ve learned with colleagues in other libraries, the successes and the failures. It’s how we will all evolve.

So to wrap up this meandering post with a tidy bow: Higher education is changing, and our campuses are full of people (many of whom were at Open Ed and Drumbeat) experimenting with new models, tools, and philosophies related to teaching, learning, and research. The primary responsibility of academic libraries is to support teaching, learning, and research, and so those experiments and the people conducting them are highly relevant to us. We must make sure that we remain relevant to them. If they see us as an obstacle it is only a matter of time before we become obsolete. We want those experimenters and innovators to view the library as both a resource for and a partner in their work, and we can do that by funding innovation among our own staff, expanding our definition of the library’s role on campus, and embracing the possibility of failure. If we neglect to do these things, we don’t just risk becoming obsolete, we guarantee it.

The ecosystem of educational resources

This week I am in Barcelona for the Open Education Conference and the Mozilla Drumbeat Festival. It’s been a very inspiring few days, and most inspiring so far was a talk by Hal Plotkin, Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary of Education in the United States Department of Education. The title of his talk was “Meeting President Obama’s 2020 College Graduation Goal – The Role of Open Educational Resources,” but his focus was actually on how to foster a culture of sharing among academics, including the very important role that government policymaking has to play. I think it’s exciting to know that there is someone helping to make educational policy who thinks the way Hal Plotkin does.

The most compelling element of this talk for me was Plotkin’s framing of the market for educational resources as an ecosystem. It began with an anecdote: At Foothills De Anza Community College, where Plotkin worked for many years, he saw at the start of each term students roaming the college bookstore, course catalogs in hand, trying to figure out which courses they could afford to take based on how expensive the textbooks were. Economic considerations were often the most important factor that students used to decide what course they could take.

There was a statistics professor at Foothills De Anza who had created his own textbook, and sold it through the college bookstore. Another statistics professor came to campus, and she wanted to create an open stats textbook, one that would be available to students for free online. The college helped her do this, and then there were two statistics classes available to students, one with a free textbook and one with a textbook they had to buy. Students voted with their feet, and enrollment in the class with the proprietary textbook dropped so low that the college nearly cancelled it. It also turned out that students in the OER class did better in subsequent stats classes, probably because they could keep their textbooks instead of selling them back to the bookstore so they could afford books for the new term. Over time the faculty member with the proprietary textbook finally understood what was happening, made his book open, now there are choices between two different open textbooks and sections on campus.

This shift from closed to open happened at Foothills De Anza Community College, not by mandate or new requirements, but by the creation of an alternate OER universe, one that is so advantageous to the community that, and I’m quoting Plotkin here, “in the natural biology of things it overtakes the less useful organism that’s part of our enterprise.”

Expanding on this story, Plotkin argued that what’s most effective in changing the culture is to look for the adopters of OER and to impel or encourage our governmental entities and governance structure in higher education to support the faculty members who want to engage in OER scholarship and the OER community. We can do this without wasting any energy in trying to convince those who are not convinced. We have enough opportunity on our hands, enough interested scholars and faculty members around the world who want to participate in this alternate academic universe that we can spend all our time fruitfully engaging them and working with them without ever wasting our time on the opposition. Over time, if we continue to nurture and support the faculty who want to be a part of a different structure, an open structure, a sharing structure, these stronger, healthier practices will overtake the old, closed practices, and push them towards extinction.

This is not a new argument. Here’s the part that was new to me: We don’t need to do this by changing the copyright law. We don’t need to attack the existing structures head on. We don’t need to fight against anything. We can let the Elseviers and Cengages keep their life plus 70 copyright terms and their draconian licensing practices. All we need to do is help open educational resources flourish – on a giant scale, a federally funded scale – and soon enough, the tough old dinosaurs of commercial publishing will evolve or die out.

Plotkin’s talk focused on the role of government and higher education administrators to support open models of educational publishing, but I think it applies just as well on a micro level. Rather than trying to convert the masses of faculty who have never heard of OER, or who actively oppose it, librarians and other proponents of sharing on campus should focus all of our time finding, reaching out to, and supporting the faculty and students on our campuses who already get it. I’ve been thinking a lot about how exactly we can do those things, and I hope to write more about it in the coming weeks.

Defining Open Access. Again.

Next week is Open Access Week, and as has become my tradition, I will be traveling to another university (actually, two universities this year) to give presentations on copyright, scholarly publishing, Creative Commons and open access. This morning I ran into my former copyright professor. We got to chatting, he asked what I’ve been up to, and I mentioned my busy Open Access Week. My professor, as he is fond of doing, asked a good question.

“So, what does ‘Open Access’ mean when you talk about it?”

Flustered, I said something about how the organizers of international Open Access Week tend to focus on the classic definition and scope of OA, meaning peer-reviewed scholarly articles available for free online, preferably with open licenses attached. I also explained that the institutions I visit for Open Access Week tend not to have much expertise about copyright or publishing, and so rather than talk about Open Access what I actually do is teach a basic introduction to copyright and scholarly publishing. That’s all true, but it didn’t really do justice to the question. The definition of open access, and more importantly the public understanding of what open access means, was never terribly clear, but lately it seems to be getting fuzzier. That’s what my professor was really asking about.

As more and more open movements have sprouted and expanded over the last few years – open peer review, open education, open government – it gets harder and harder to tease them apart. Open means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and we can’t assume that a roomful of people who care about openness care about the same thing. Chances are they really really don’t.

Within the Open Access movement alone there are a growing number of tactics for achieving openness, not to mention a gradual loosening of the requirements for labeling something open. On the tactics front, we have the Compact for Open Publishing Equity, flourishing institutional repositories, deposit mandates from both funding bodies and research institutions, and good old fashioned outreach to faculty. As for loosening requirements, we have been conflating Open Access with Free Online Access for years. Things got even muddier when publishers like Springer and Elsevier started offering the “Open Choice” publishing option, which gives authors the “opportunity” to pay several thousand dollars to make their work freely available online. The other night a friend of mine mentioned that she and her co-authors were given several different options from their publisher, all confusing; she knew she wanted the one that would make their work free to everyone, but wasn’t confident she could identify which option would do that. She just told her co-author to look for the one that had open in the name, and hoped she was right. It’s all a far cry from the Budapest definition.

Is it bad, this watering down of Open Access? Certainly it makes it harder to talk about. It makes it harder to brand and market. But nobody owns open. That’s the whole point. Despite the fragmentation and confusion, ultimately I think it’s probably going to be better for the public and better for our future to have lots of people approaching the problem of how to improve access to knowledge and scholarly output from lots of different angles. Names and definitions are useful for raising awareness and building community, but the ultimate goal of the open access movement is to make itself and its definitions obsolete. If this movement succeeds eventually we won’t need to distinguish between open scholarship and closed scholarship. It will all be scholarship, and it will all be accessible.