Paul Stacey

Open Harvest

How can we build a global scientific data commons for agriculture and food? That was the big question on my mind when, at the invitation of Agroknow, I set off to Chania Greece for an event called Open Harvest. This event brought together organizations from around the world who are all engaged in research, knowledge, and capacity development related to agriculture, food, nutrition and the environment. Organizations like GODAN, CGIAR, INRA, CABI, CAAS, ISI / DRTC, EMBRAPA and many more. It is always special when a network of organizations like this are brought together as it provides a forum for knowledge sharing and collaboration.

Open Harvest Sign

Open Harvest 2017 photo by Agroknow licensed CC BY

The first two days of Open Harvest were done workshop style with groups discussing how they define a “scientific data commons” and “shared scientific data infrastructure”, why we need it, and how it relates to relate to specific initiatives & agendas organizations are working on. A big topic was open data. Open data is data that can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone – subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share-alike. Everyone made reference to the FAIR principle. Data must be Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable. Discussion related to these questions and open data was wide-ranging touching on policy, privacy, security, standards, technology, research, services, management, and how best to collaborate around this work.

On the third day I gave an opening keynote  which I called “Beyond Licensing: the social and economic aspects of building an open data commons.” Drawing on insights from the recently published Made With Creative Commons I aimed to provoke new thinking about not just how to make data open but about how a commons works and the innovations and economic potential it has.

One of the ways I’ve been reflecting on and assimilating what I learned at Open Harvest is framing what took place against a simple equation I’ve been using from Made With Creative Commons. That equation looks like this:

Sustainability = open resources + social good + human connection.

Sustainability relates largely to open business models and the ability to generate revenue to sustain operations. Open resources are digital goods that have been licensed, (usually using Creative Commons), to be freely and openly available for others to retain, revise, reuse, remix, and redistribute. Human connection refers to prosocial human connection that openness enables. A move from anonymous market transaction to co-creation interactions where a community is built up around the resources being shared.

Let me use the lens of this equation to share what I learned at Open Harvest and describe what I see as the next steps for creating a global scientific data commons for agriculture and food.

Open Resources

So just what are the resources organizations have that could be made open and shareable? They are many and diverse including things like policies, practices & processes (workflows, data management plans, …), models, ontologies/semantics/metadata, technologies, and data. Focusing simply on open data is limiting. We’re really talking about a whole ecosystem of openness including open policy, open knowledge, open practices, and open data. When I look at a collection of open resources like this I think about which ones will be the most important and valuable to the consortium. But I also look at what resources will be most valuable and helpful for the intended beneficiary – farmers and industry. The strategic themes and the drivers for industry needs mapped out in Campden BRI’s Innovation for the food and drink supply chain document does a great job of defining the practical and applied resources needed. I wish there was something similar for farmers.

When you have such a large number of organizations doing related work it is helpful for there to be a level collaboration and sharing taking place to reduce redundancy and ensure interoperability of outputs. An event like Open Harvest shows just how important that is but going forward there is a big need to look at some overarching mechanism for ongoing collaboration and coordination. There needs to be a means for participants to identify what they have in the way of resources and what they need. A means for inter-organizational collaboration and exchange of shared resources. A coordinated effort toward a common goal.

Driven by Social Good

Open Harvest 2017 photo by Agroknow licensed CC BY

Social Good

In 2016 world leaders at the United Nations adopted 17 sustainable development goals. Goal number 2 is – “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.” Clearly this is a major social good, one that all the organizations at Open Harvest are working in support of.

Open Harvest participating organizations are all working to make agriculture and food relevant data available, accessible, and usable for unrestricted use worldwide. As GODAN, one of the participating organizations notes in their statement of purpose: “Open access to research, and open publication of data, are vital resources for food security and nutrition, driven by farmers, farmer organizations, researchers, extension experts, policy makers, governments, and other private sector and civil society stakeholders participating in ‘innovation systems’ and along value chains. Lack of institutional, national, and international policies and openness of data limits the effectiveness of agricultural and nutritional data from research and innovation. Making open data work for agriculture and nutrition requires a shared agenda to increase the supply, quality, and interoperability of data, alongside action to build capacity for the use of data by all stakeholders.”

The social good being generated through the work of Open Harvest participants encompasses many of the other sustainable goals too including: poverty, health, gender equality, water and sanitation, energy, economic growth, and sustainable consumption. The extent to which the resources coming out of Open Harvest organization work can be directly shown to positively contribute to the realization of these goals should be a metrics dashboard by which their success and impact is measured.

Human Interaction

Having open resources that contribute to social good attracts participation. Ideally the resources are of interest and useful to large numbers of people. At Open Harvest I found myself listening to what others were saying with an eye to who is generating resources of interest not just to government and researchers but to farmers and citizens. One of the big opportunities associated with openness and creating a commons is the way it opens up participation and engagement to everyone. It not only levels the playing field it invites new players to engage.

Open Harvest Workshop

Open Harvest 2017 photo by Agroknow licensed CC BY

However, going from an autonomous, proprietary, all-rights-reserved model to an open one that provides access and promotes reuse is a big change. For this to become widespread it will require incentives, new means of evaluating performance, and clear articulation of benefits.

When thinking about what open resources to create and share I think about which ones will generate the greatest interest, the largest number of users, the most impact. What resources provide maximum value? If we have an Internet of Things with sensors collecting data related to food and agriculture what data will be of interest and use to consumers and producers? Which resources are relevant globally? Which ones have the potential to build a community of users around who all engage in using, improving, translating, localizing, and updating the resource? Ensuring open resources, including open data, have impact involves building a relationship with those who benefit from the use of those resources.

In my experience the social and community based aspect of openness is the one part of the equation least attended to. And yet I would argue it is the most important. If we are going to build a global scientific data commons for agriculture and food then lets build one that provides access to all, maximizes participation, generates value collectively, spurs innovation, and brings people together for a common cause. Lets not use openness to just improve existing practices but rather to do innovative things not possible any other way.

I commend the Open Harvest participants for putting together a fantastic Open Harvest 2nd Chania Declaration and Call to Action mapping out a way forward.

Special thanks to the Agroknow team for hosting an amazing event and to all the participants for welcoming me and sharing their work and aspirations.

Originally published as Agroknow blog post 19-June-2017.

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A Systems Approach to Open

In the 1990’s I worked for Hughes Aircraft of Canada developing large scale air traffic control systems for international customers around the world. Air traffic control systems are large, complex, mission critical systems. After extensive requirements gathering and analysis an overall architecture for the air traffic control system was defined including complete hardware and software requirements. Development of something so large required the overall architecture to be broken down into subsystem components which were then distributed to different teams for development. The lead systems engineering team had the responsibility of integrating developed subsystems into the final air traffic control system and ensuring that the overall architecture design and requirements were met.

This kind of approach is called systems engineering. The key characteristics of systems engineering are that it:

  • gathers, analyses and shapes customer requirements into an overall system
  • takes a holistic view that breaks the overall system down into components and integrates developed components together into a whole
  • uses and coordinates an interdisciplinary set of expertise and teams
  • focuses on not just the initial development of the system but its life cycle and iterative improvement over time
  • combines technical and human-centred practices and work processes

The early days of open licensing and open resources were primarily shaped by innovators and early adopters using Creative Commons licenses and creating open resources as independent individuals. What I see now is open moving from an individual activity to a large scale system wide activity similar to systems engineering. As open matures a more holistic approach is being adopted involving many people working together.

Increasingly I see a systems approach to open as being the most strategic and impactful. A systems approach takes a multi-stakeholder perspective, strategically considering all the stakeholders in a value chain and how they can work together to achieve a common goal. This shifts the focus from individual adoption of open practices to system-wide adoption. A system working together can achieve greater impact than an individual.

Let me give a couple of examples.

The BCcampus Open Textbook Summit held in Vancouver 16-17-Apr-2014 brought together a wide range of organizations and people who are all collectively working on adopting, adapting, and authoring open textbooks for students. An open textbook is a textbook licensed under an open copyright license (such as Creative Commons), and made available online to be freely used by students, teachers, and members of the public. While online versions of open textbooks are available for free if students want hard copy they can print out their own or order a low-cost print version.

Open Textbook Summit logo

The open licensing of a textbook makes it possible for others to add to, adapt, translate, localize, and otherwise improve it. Everyone has 5R rights to:

Retain: Make, own, and control their own copy of the textbook
Reuse: Use the open textbook in its unaltered form
Revise: Adapt, adjust, modify, improve, or alter the book
Remix: Combine the book with other openly licensed content to create something new
Redistribute: Share copies of the original textbook, revisions, or remixes with others

The BCcampus Open Textbook Summit featured speakers representing a wide interdisciplinary group of expertise including government & institution senior administrators, faculty, students (and here), librarians, authors, publishers, and technologists. This wide representation of multiple stakeholders who all play a role in creating open textbooks is a great example of a systemic approach. Each stakeholder’s involvement in creating and using open textbooks is important but it is the cumulative effect of multiple stakeholders working together that creates the greatest impact.

More about the BCcampus Open Textbook initiative can be found here.
If you want to see examples of open textbooks start here.

One of the great things about the BCcampus Open Textbook Summit was that it brought together not only multiple stakeholders but multiple regional open textbook initiatives. Representatives of open textbook initiatives in California, Oregon, Washington and beyond were all in attendance. This enables sharing and comparing of approaches and lessons learned not just from different stakeholders but from different regional system wide initiatives. Its fascinating, and informative, to hear about the BC open textbook initiative and compare it to the one in California, or Washington, or Oregon.

Inevitably the adoption of open practices requires stakeholders to change current modes of operation, sometimes dramatically so. Change of this magnitude can be disruptive and may threaten traditional roles and responsibilities, business models, and financial structures. A natural reaction to such change is fear, risk aversion, and preference for the status quo.

To generate movement and acceptance I’ve found it important to keep the focus on the shared goal, cause, or issue that open solves. In the case of open textbooks the shared goal is making education more accessible and affordable for students. Having a shared goal as the primary focus make business models, roles, modes of operation and the like secondary to the main goal. When the impetus and value associated with achieving the main goal are big enough, change happens, the system and stakeholders adapt, new models and modes of operation emerge. Adoption of open practices is best enabled when the value proposition of doing so is high.

Open textbooks are one great example of a systems approach to open.

Another example emerged for me in the context of leading an open models working group for the World Bank’s Global Food Safety Partnership (GFSP). Our task was to generate a range of open models that enhance the scalability and sustainability of food safety. Our primary goal was to show how open practices can support GFSP’s efforts to help ensure safe food, increase food supply chain value, accelerate economic growth, alleviate rural poverty, and improve public health outcomes. This is the big picture goal the GFSP seeks to attain.

Can adoption of open practices help the GFSP achieve this goal? If so, how?

The Global Food Safety Partnership is a public/private partnership representing many different stakeholders including:

  • governments
  • funders
  • regulatory agencies – public regulators, inspectors and managers
  • private sector agri-food processors and manufacturers
  • farmers and producers
  • universities, service providers, trainers and certification bodies
  • international organizations
  • non-governmental organizations (NGOs)

This suggests that a systems approach to open is required. It won’t be enough for one stakeholder to adopt open practices. The goals of GFSP are too large for that to be impactful. Achieving the big goals of GFSP requires multi-stakeholder coordinated participation.

One of the significant benefits of open practices is that they open up the opportunity for new stakeholders to get involved and participate. Food storage and cooking at home, the poor, the farmer, the food market seller, the street vendor, these uses and stakeholders are not well represented at the GFSP table. Adoption of open practices opens up the opportunity for them to be involved. If GFSP has a goal of alleviating rural poverty it is essential that they be engaged as active participants.

A systems approach to open offers opportunities for information sharing, public participation, and collaboration. Multi-stakeholder adoption of open practices generates cumulative benefits for all stakeholders. In a systems approach to open the more stakeholders participating the greater the impact.

Applying a systems approach to open for GFSP considers the role of each stakeholder and what open practices they could adopt that would contribute to the big picture goal GFSP is seeking to realize. Its not a one size fits all approach. Different stakeholders adopt different open practices. Government and funders might adopt open policy that require deliverables produced through the funds they provide to be openly licensed. Providers involved in generating food safety training and learning resources can publish their content as Open Educational Resources. There are many forms of open and a myriad of open practices can be brought to bear on a shared goal.

For the GFSP we defined nine different open practices stakeholders could adopt:

  1. open content (including Open Educational Resources and Open Courseware)
  2. open data
  3. open access (research)
  4. open government
  5. open source software
  6. open standards
  7. open policy
  8. open licensing
  9. open hardware

GFSP Open Model Big Picture

For each type of open practice we provided GFSP relevant examples. Here’s a sampling:

  1. open content – see Digital Green and Food Safety Knowledge Network
  2. open data – the US web site releases government open data.In 2012, a national annual competition was created as part of the Health Data Initiative to stimulate the innovative use of health data in apps and products. The “Health DataPalooza” is now a sold out event attended by over 2,000 health providers, technology developers, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and community advocates and has resulted in the launch of new products and companies. OpenFDA, providing easy access to public data of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and highlighting projects using these data, will be implemented in September of 2014.
  3. open access (research) – There are a number of open access journals and online publications that provide free and open access to scholarly articles specific to food safety, foodborne illness, manufacturing and processing practices, etc. In 2007 the US National Institutes of Health enacted an open access policy requiring the researchers they fund to make their final, peer‐reviewed manuscripts publicly available no later than 12 months after official date of publication. The number of open access journals is rapidly increasing – the Directory of Open Access Journals lists over 9,000. The Public Library of Science (PLOS) and BioMed Central are two popular examples relevant to food safety.
  4. open hardware – See Open Source Ecology and Farm Hack for examples relevant to food production and food safety. Photosynq is an open research project whose goal is to create a low cost, hand-held measurement device which researchers, educators and citizen scientists can use to build a global database of plant health. A low cost mobile prototype has been developed to replace the large, expensive and stationary equipment that was previously required to measure photosynthesis.

One of the challenges in open work is helping people understand the myriad forms of open and how they work. Defining open practices, along with associated value propositions and examples goes a long way to establishing a common lexicon and a tool box of methods that can be strategically deployed.

All that and more is captured in the GFSP Open Models Concept paper. Feel free to read the whole thing if this interests you. I also want to express deep appreciation and thanks to Theresa Bernardo and Garin Fons who co-wrote this paper with me and to Chris Geith and the World Bank for the opportunity.

Writing the GFSP Open Models paper led me to have a heightened interest in the use of open practices for food related issues. My colleague Puneet Kishor at Creative Commons shared with me another great example – the Open Source Seed Initiative. Linux for Lettuce and The Carrot Hack provide thoughtful coverage of this important development.

Open Source Seed Initiative web site

I also recently finished reading Jeremy Rifkin’s book The Zero Marginal Cost Society (highly recommend) which contains a few other fascinating examples including Shared Earth connecting land owners with gardeners and farmers, and HerbShare which is fundraising to develop online, searchable community maps of fresh herbs available for sharing.

Open Source Seed Initiative web site

A systems approach to open combines a wide range of open practices across multiple stakeholders and applies them to a shared common goal. It’s exciting work that not only accomplishes short term goals but sets in place a process that can scale, iterate, and sustain over the long term.

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2011 The Year of Open

The “open” space is expanding.
2011 has been a watershed year with open gaining traction and acceptance.

photo by Paul Stacey

Governments in Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the US have all adopted Creative Commons licenses to communicate broad reuse rights to the content, data, and educational materials they create. By doing so these national governments are seeking to:

  • promote creative and innovative activities, which will deliver social and economic benefits
  • make government more transparent and open in its activities, ensuring that the public are better informed about the work of the government and the public sector
  • enable more civic and democratic engagement through social enterprise and voluntary and community activities

This move to more open government is not just happening at the national level. Here in British Columbia the provincial government has established a Ministry of Labour, Citizen’s Services and Open Government and became the first provincial government in Canada to launch an open data portal.

Its even happening at the city or municipal level. The city of Sao Paulo in Brazil has decreed that all educational resources paid for by the city need to be Open Educational Resources (OER) licensed using Creative Commons license.

Its not just happening at the national, provincial, and municipal levels its happening at the organizational and institutional levels. The National Autonomous University of Mexico, better known as UNAM, has said it will make virtually all of its publications, databases, and course materials freely available on the Internet over the next few years. This is to include all magazines and periodicals published by UNAM, research published by UNAM employees, and online access to theses, dissertations and its approximately 300 undergraduate and graduate courses. The UNAM Online initiative seeks to achieve open access, public and free to all products, collections and digital developments of the university. This move is seen as part of the university’s mission. A way to give back to society what it is doing with its financial support. A way of being open, accountable and transparent.

Its not just publications, research, theses and other content that is going open, 2011 was the year that open pedagogies including Massively Open Online Courses (MOOC) were adopted by mainstream big name institutions. A Massively Open Online Course is typically taught by faculty at an established institution to tuition paying regular students but is also open to enrollment by anyone interested for free. Only the tuition paying students receive accreditation. MOOC’s have been around for a while (see here and here) but this year saw the following fascinating examples:

Digital Storytelling DS106 – Jim Groom’s University of Mary Washington DS106 is an open, online course free to anyone who wants to take it. You can join in whenever you like and leave whenever you need. Participants develop skills in using technology as a tool for creative self-expression, building a digital identity, and critically examining the landscape of communication technologies. The 2011 version of this course invented a free form live streaming course radio station as a new form of teaching and learning. This course starts up again in January 2012 in case you’d like to sign up.

In the fall of 2011 Stanford Engineering professors offered three of the school’s most popular computer science courses for free online as MOOC’s, Machine Learning, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, and Introduction to Databases. The Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course generated over 100,000 enrollments and had to be capped. Students taking the course for free watch video lecture recordings, read course materials, complete assignments and take quizzes and an exam. What online students don’t receive, however, is one-on-one interaction with professors, the full content of lectures – or a Stanford degree.

In late December MIT announced MITx which aims to let thousands of online learners take laboratory-intensive courses, while assessing their ability to work through complex problems, complete projects, and write assignments (see FAQ). As with other MOOC style offerings students won’t have interaction with faculty or earn credit toward an MIT degree. However, for a small fee (yet to be defined) students can take an assessment which if successfully completed will provide them with a certificate from MITx. Whether this turns out to be anything more than the form letters Stanford’s faculty provide non-enrolled students who complete the course remains to be seen. But, imagine this scenario. A student signs up for a free MITx course, completes the assignments, pays the assessment fee and receives a certificate indicating successful completion. That student then decides to apply to and enroll in MIT proper. Would that certificate be accepted by MIT as transfer credit or would they force the student to retake the entire course?

Museums and libraries are going open. Check out the Commons on Flickr to see how libraries and museums are openly sharing what have been hidden treasures in the world’s public photography archives, and how they are openly sourcing public input and knowledge into making these collections even richer. The Commons on Flickr openly shares photos where “no known copyright restrictions” exist, such as:

  • The copyright is in the public domain because it has expired;
  • The copyright was injected into the public domain for other reasons, such as failure to adhere to required formalities or conditions;
  • The institution owns the copyright but is not interested in exercising control; or
  • The institution has legal rights sufficient to authorize others to use the work without restrictions.

I think of these collections as partially open. The rights statements of participating libraries and museums are full of statements like; “It is your responsibility to determine what permission(s) you need in order to use the Content and, if necessary, to obtain such permission.” Not particularly helpful or encouraging of reuse. No where near as clear as Creative Commons licenses. However, I do really like the way they are seeking public input into the cataloging and data associated with these images. See No. 47. Crew member taking a movie of ice berg from the ship, Greenland, 1939 for an example of how Smithsonian images are being shared through the Commons on Flickr and how public input is improving the collection. It’s particularly heartening to see the Smithsonian directly interacting with end users.

Photo from Smithsonian Institution’s Photostream

In November 2011 Wired announced that all staff-produced photos will be released under a Creative Commons (CC BY-NC) license in high-res format on a newly launched public Flickr stream. In making the announcement Wired notes; “Like many other sites across the web, we’ve benefited from CC-licensed photos at for years — thank you, sharers! It seems only fitting, and long overdue, to start sharing ourselves.”

Its great to see these examples of open leadership happening at the national, provincial, municipal, institutional, and organizational level and it makes me wonder – Is open going viral? Is open going mainstream?

There is growing government interest in seeing resources produced through tax dollars be publicly accessible. Governments at all levels are using policy and legal frameworks to open up access to publicly held information, promote transparency, and enable wider economic and social gain. These are all factors every government and their electorate are interested in.

I can’t wait for the day when more and more government officials recognize the benefits of open and establish themselves as proponents. Washington State representative Reuven Carlyle gets it in spades. See $64 million for out-of-date and educationally generic textbooks? Here’s a new approach, and Beginning of the end for $100 college textbooks: Legislature, colleges, Gates Foundation partner for examples of how a politician can make a difference by understanding and leveraging open.

I think of open textbooks as low hanging fruit. One of the most compelling open education initiatives to undertake. Open textbooks have a clear value proposition for students, parents, educators and public funders. CK-12’s flexbooks are totally impressive for the fact that they are Creative Commons licensed and for the simple way you can assemble a book as a .pdf, an e-book, or html and embed it in an LMS. And then there is Saylor’s Open Textbook Challenge which is offering a “bounty” of $20,000 if you submit your textbook to them and it is accepted for use in their course materials. I expect we’ll see open textbooks for high enrollment undergrad courses across the board.

While I’m interested in the full range of ways in which open principles are being used I’m particularly interested in how they apply to education. Governments could establish policy that requires public funds for education to result in education resources openly accessible to the public. Some governments have provided funding for development of educational resources under agreements that have the IP and copyright for those resources resting with the government. Governments could easily convert all these legacy educational resources to Open Educational Resources (OER) by simply using an open license like Creative Commons.

UNESCO and the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) published the UNESCO-COL Guidelines for Open Educational Resources (OER) in Higher Education this year providing a set of guidelines to support governments, teaching staff, higher education institutions/providers, and quality assurance/accreditation and recognition bodies adopt and support OER.

The guidelines for government include:
a. Support the use of OER through the revision of policy regulating higher education
b. Contribute to raising awareness of key OER issues
c. Review national ICT/connectivity strategies for Higher Education
d. Consider adapting open licensing frameworks
e. Consider adopting open format standards
f. Support institutional investments in curriculum design
g. Support the sustainable production and sharing of learning materials
h. Collaborate to find effective ways to harness OER.

I look forward to seeing these policies adopted around the world, used at the national, provincial, municipal, and institutional level, and applied across all of education.

For public government, public service agencies, and not-for-profits open policy is a perfect fit. For the most compelling and articulate description of its obviousness I highly recommend you listen to Cable Green’s Sloan-C presentation The Obviousness of Open Policy which he gave in November 2011 (advance to time index 10:25 and click on the 4 arrows in the upper right corner to go full screen). In a digital world the potential is there for open to become a widespread win/win de facto policy with benefits for governments and citizens. The most amazing thing of all is that government support for open can happen at the policy and guidelines level without any additional funding. It’s hard to imagine why any entity serving the public interest wouldn’t adopt open policies when open can clearly generate social and economic benefits.

I’m highlighting these government developments around policy and open as I see them as an essential complement to the grass roots way open adoption has happened to date. Individuals, on their own, have embraced open. Photographers have uploaded over 200 million images to Flickr tagged with Creative Commons licenses. Wikipedia’s more than 3.8 million entries are openly licensed using Creative Commons. In June 2011 YouTube added the Creative Commons Attribution license as a licensing option for users and launched a Creative Commons video library containing 10,000 videos under CC BY from organizations such as C-SPAN,, Voice of America, and Al Jazeera. There are now hundreds of thousands of YouTube videos that users have posted with Creative Commons licenses.

People who tweet and use social networks appreciate openly engaging others in solving problems or providing advice. The New Einsteins Will Be Scientists Who Share explores this potential for science. Even Scientific American is in on the act with their citizen science site. I expect we’ll soon see national organizations responsible for research establish open innovation as an essential aspect of research agendas.

As might be expected there are a growing number of practices and technologies emerging to support this kind of open engagement. Knowledge in the Public Interest is using the concept of a JAM‘s for open engagement. A JAM is a a non-linear moderated discussion of fixed duration that is part creative brainstorming, part active dialogue, and part focus group. In a JAM participants share experiences, knowledge, and ideas, and collaborate in search of actionable responses to complex issues. It’s interesting to note that Knowledge in the Public Interest’s customized version of Moodle and its JAM process are similar to what BCcampus has been doing for years with its customized Moodle SCoPE seminars.

Idea Scale is another interesting example. The recently launched US initiative Digital Promise is using Idea Scale to generate and tackle “grand challenges” to spur breakthrough technologies that can help transform the way teachers teach and students learn. You can see grand challenge ideas submitted so far in Idea Scale here.

In education, Learning Management Systems are largely closed walled off online learning environments that require passwords and logins for entry. It was a welcome surprise then when in October 2011 Blackboard announced a series of new initiatives to provide greater support for open education efforts. Working with Creative Commons, Blackboard now supports publishing of open educational resources (OER) across its platforms. Support for OER enables instructors to publish and share their courses under a Creative Commons Attribution license (CC BY) so that anyone can easily preview and download the course content. Blackboard also updated its policy around fees so that there are no extra charges associated with sharing courses with outsiders such as other educators, auditors, or prospective students. Blackboard says it wants to help institutions share the content of their courses with larger, online audiences. When a technology vendor like Blackboard starts to support open then you know open is past the idea stage and going mainstream.

Given the growing personal use of open licenses by end users it makes sense for governments to do the same. Open will flourish when bottom-up grassroots efforts toward open take place in an environment supported top-down by policy.

photo by Deborah Stacey

My own work at BCcampus around OER has been an example of that synergy. Government Ministry of Advanced Education support for faculty development of online learning resources has been provided with the caveat that the resources be open and shareable. I’ve written about this initiative extensively elsewhere in this blog (see here, and here, and here) so thought I’d shine the light on a couple of other 2011 developments that add credence to the growing sense of open going viral and the synergy between policy and grassroots adoption.

In the US the Obama administration initiated the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) Grants Program out of the US Department of Labor. The first round of TAACCCT grants made available and awarded in 2011 totals $500 million but a total of $2 billion over four years has been committed. This example of government commitment to open is the largest I know of and I hope others are inspired to follow suit. TAACCCT provides eligible institutions of higher education with funds to expand and improve their ability to deliver education and career training programs that can be completed in 2 years or less, and that result in skills, degrees, and credentials that prepare program participants for employment in high-wage, high-skill occupations, and are suited for workers who are eligible for training under the TAA for Workers program. TAACCCT funds are capacity building grants strategically targeted to assist workers adversely affected by trade agreements. All TAACCCT initiatives are expected to meet accessibility and interoperability standards and produce OER licensed using Creative Commons (CC-BY).

Wayne Mackintosh and the Open Educational Resource Foundation (OERF) in New Zealand have been doing just an amazing job of bringing to life the OER university (OERu). Here’s how the OERu is described:

The OER university is a virtual collaboration of like-minded institutions committed to creating flexible pathways for OER learners to gain formal academic credit.

The OER university aims to provide free learning to all students worldwide using OER learning materials with pathways to gain credible qualifications from recognised education institutions. It is rooted in the community service and outreach mission to develop a parallel learning universe to augment and add value to traditional delivery systems in post-secondary education. Through the community service mission of participating institutions we will open pathways for OER learners to earn formal academic credit and pay reduced fees for assessment and credit.

The concept of an OERu gained widespread support and made incredible progress over the 2011 year. Institutions from around the world have become OERu founding partners including:

These founding partners represent Canada, USA, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, and India. For OERu to have attracted the interest and involvement of this many partners in a one year period is impressive. I’m particularly encouraged with the breadth, depth and reputations of these partners. It’s worth pointing out that the OERu openly invites other institutions to join. I expect many additional institutions from all around the world will join the OERu and follow the early leadership these founding anchor partners have shown.

Over the course of 2011 the OERu:

Perhaps the most impressive thing of all with OERu is that all of this has been planned and published openly on Wikieducator with invited and included participation from people all over the world. Got ideas you’d like to contribute to the OERu? Log on to the wiki and add them – input from all is welcome. OERu is not only about opening education its modelling how to do planning and development in an open and inclusive way. For the OERu, open is not just about content – its about all aspects of education, it seeks to engage and benefit all people everywhere, it’s a way of working. Outstanding!

photo by Deborah Stacey

Against this backdrop of growing global momentum and critical mass around open, 2011 has been a pivotal year of open for me personally too. Here’s my own personal 2011 top 10 open highlights:

#1. The University of Open articulates a vision of a new kind of university that strategically chooses to use and contribute to the code of Open Source Software, publish research openly using Open Access principles, teach openly in the public using Open Pedagogies, share data on it’s activities using Open Data, and involve faculty and students in developing and using Open Educational Resources (OER). This vision of an alternative ‘university of open’ serves as an inspiration for me. I’ve been thrilled to find this idea picked up and promoted internationally by Sir John Daniel of the Commonwealth of Learning (Open Courseware, Open Content, Open Practices, Open Learning: Where are the limits?Tertiary Education: How Open?Open Universities: what are the dimensions of openness?Publishing with Public Money for Public Benefit)

#2. Award of grants for the 2010 BCcampus Online Program Development Fund which supports partnerships of BC public post secondary institutions in their development of online learning curricula as OER. This was the eighth consecutive round, the longest running publicly funded OER initiative I know of, bringing the cumulative 2003-2010 investment to $9 million. Kudos to BC’s Ministry of Advanced Education for its early foresight and willingness to back open over all these years.

#3. One of OER’s holy grails is reuse by others. I think there is a dearth of understanding about just what people think this means but this past year several significant events happened around OER developed in BC being picked up and expanded by others elsewhere. I find these examples fascinating as they represent real-life examples of what happens as OER mature. The University of British Columbia’s Virtual Soil Science Learning Resources are a great example of an OER initiative that started in BC and has expanded. The additional institutional partners brought on over time contribute to improving existing learning resources, developing new learning resources, and use existing virtual soil science learning resources for courses in their own institutions. I enjoyed helping bring together soil scientists in India with the core UBC team to further expand the work through an international partnership.

When someone says to me OER reuse I think about this – the formation of distributed social networks of faculty and students collectively working on shared curriculum.

Royal Roads University has a wonderful Open Educational Resources site and Mary Burgess, the lead for this initiative sent me an e-mail in November 2011 saying:

“We’ve had some exciting developments on our little OER project of late that I just had to share with you!

Last week, we found out that a consortium of Chinese institutions is using our Instructional Skills Workshop Online (shared from our OER site) – you can see it here.

And today, we found out that 2 of our Moodle customizations are being made part of Moodle core in version 2.3.

Finally, I had an email from a guy at the University of Madrid yesterday who is using another one of our Moodle patches.

We are over the moon that our work is of use to others!”

I love that last statement. It is exciting to see the work you openly share be of use to others.

#4. Consortium of BCcampus, WICHE, CCCS, North Island College, College of the Rockies and institutions in Montana, Wyoming and Colorado awarded Gates Foundation funded Next Generation Learning Challenges Wave I $750K grant for the North American Network of Science Labs Online. Especially momentous for me was the workshop we did at North Island College in Courtenay BC where over 50 educators, faculty and edtech specialists participated in a demonstration of the Remote Web-based Science Lab and in discipline panel discussions around the biology, chemistry and physics OER courses and labs this project is creating. This project is exciting and yet another example of an OER project that has been unfolding over several years in BC expanding outward and increasing impact through additional partners.

#5. Moodle Moot Canada 2011 keynote “Talking About All Things Open” with Terry Anderson, Stephen Downes, Gavin Hendrick and myself. Terry Andersons’ description of open scholarship was a key idea for me. I also got a blast out of openly engaging all conference attendees in crowdsourcing the Future of E-Learning.

#6. Open4Learning Educational Technology Users Group Workshop in Nelson BC. An awesome program exploring the diverse aspects of open in education from a BC perspective.

#7. OERu. I’ve described this initiative in some detail earlier in this post. It’s been fascinating to see this initiative evolve over 2011 and to be an active participant and facilitator in helping define what it is.

#8. Interview with Timothy Vollmer at Creative Commons resulting in Open Education and Policy

#9. University of Northern British Columbia Opportunity Side of Open talk, workshop on Finding and Using OER, and ABC Copyright Conference Especially enjoyed the conference Talkshop session exploring issues related to recent Access Copyright efforts to increase tariffs which caused many institutions to withdraw from Access Copyright and giving a keynote, the Opportunity Side of Open Part 2 which includes suggestions for actions faculty, students and institutions could pursue if they embrace and adopt open as a key aspect of their work.

I’ve received some inquiries from people as to whether I’ve evolved the University of Open concept. The answer is yes. Some of what I’ve been working on are these suggestions for actions faculty, students, and institutions could pursue if they embrace and adopt open as a key aspect of their work. I’ve been thinking about what people would do, how they’d behave, if they were committed to the University of Open. Here’s a brief synopsis of possible actions:

Open Faculty:

  • Make intellectual projects & processes digitally visible & open to criticism/comment
  • Do open research
  • Publish in open access journals
  • Self archive work for open peer and public review
  • Create a new type of education work maximizing social learning, participatory pedagogies, global connections
  • Teach open courses
  • Develop OER with communities of professional peers & students
  • Use open educational resources developed by others
  • Assign and author open textbooks

Open Students:

  • Use OER to select institutions & courses of study
  • Use OER for self-study
  • Engage in open study around OER with global peers of students
  • Assemble OER and open/free software tools into personal learning environments
  • Customize, enhance and develop OER (for credit)
  • Actively participate in social learning and form networks and connections
  • Track and use open data on learning to plan and manage learning process
  • Create open e-portfolios making learning projects, processes, and outcomes digitally visible

Open Institutions:

  • Work in consortia to develop and use OER for academic programs
  • Use OER to market & promote programs & coursesof study
  • Use Open Source Software and contribute to developer community
  • Reward (performance) and support (policy & funds) open access research publishing
  • Generate and publish open data around learning, scholarly activities, and outcomes/achievements
  • Create unique identity and establish value by extent of open activity and global benefits

#10. BCcampus Opening Education event. It’s really great to see in followup to this event that BC’s Electronic Library Network at their December meeting began planning initiatives around OER, open textbooks and a copyright course for faculty and students in 2012. I think librarians can make a huge impact on open and will play a much more central role in the way it plays out in education over the coming years.

photo by Paul Stacey

Going in to 2012 I see big opportunities for open to unfold on a larger scale. Summarizing calls for action from the above I hope:

  • Governments, municipalities and institutions adopt open policy and licenses
  • Legacy resources held by governments, municipalities and institutions are openly licensed
  • New grant funds for development of educational resources use open licenses
  • Faculty and students at the individual level automatically license their resources openly
  • International consortia form around the development and enhancement of open educational resources

For many “open” is not even on their radar screen. For others open is present but fragile. Still others think ‘Open-ness’ is growing, but in ways that are not quite what was anticipated by the more dedicated proponents of OERs. I agree with this last statement and hope I’ve depicted some of the breadth of ways open is growing in this post. I think open is past the tipping point. This year even institutions who were not early adopters began to find ways to be participants. I think there are even more people and organizations on the sidelines looking for a way to enter the field.

As is apparent from this blog Creative Commons licenses are critical enablers of open. 2012 will be Creative Commons’ tenth anniversary. I’ve been imagining ways I’d improve Creative Commons. Everyone in the Open Educational Resource (OER) space has been wanting some way for tracking reuse. I think this could be enabled through the license although I’d frame it differently. I think we should be tracking attribution which is a condition of all Creative Commons licenses. Ideally creators receive attribution notification when others reuse their work – like pingbacks, or trackback in social media. Its motivating for creators to know that their work is having an impact and valued by others. Tracking attribution will generate a means of showing impact akin to research citations. My colleague Scott Leslie has done some work around tracking OER reuse and I’m also intrigued by the Total Impact work Heather Piwowar is involved with.

I’ve also been thinking of the potential to go “beyond permissions to intentions”. Let me explain. Creative Commons licenses do a great job of complementing copyright by providing a mechanism for creators to express permissions they accord others in terms of use of their work. However, what is missing is any expression of creators intentions. Are they giving permissions and don’t really care how its used? Would the creator like to see derivatives of their work that others create? Is the creator really interested in finding others who want to collaborate with them on the continuous improvement of the work? This latter intention is in my view critical to the long term success of OER. All open initiatives succeed over the long term based on the size and vibrancy of the open community that gets built up around it. I really wish there was some means of expressing creator intentions so that others reusing the work can do so in ways that fulfill creator aspirations.

So in summary I see Creative Commons licenses as having three components:

  1. Permission – this component exists already. It’s how creators express the permissions they are according to creators in terms of attribution, creating derivative works/or not, allowing commercial use/or not, and requiring share alike/or not.
  2. Attribution – this component would make explicit how users are to provide attribution to the original creator and send the creator a trackback indicating attribution/reuse.
  3. Intention – this component would express the creators intention in making the work available through Creative Commons and provide a means for subsequent users to support those intentions.

I’d like to see each of these three functions embedded in the license and available to creators and subsequent users with one click. One of my big interests is in increasing the value proposition for creators.

This blog post provides a body of evidence on the many ways open expanded in 2011. I’d like to close this blog by celebrating one form of open that happens every year at this time – the way Christmas opens the human heart. Merry Christmas all.

photo by Deborah Stacey