OpenEd: week 9

I started to read the Italian edition of Free Culture but I realized I would not be able to finish this book in time. I further admit that Lessig’s book had not fascinated me too much… So, lately I shifted to one of the Benkler’s papers. I previously appreciated this author for his paper proposed in week 8, thus I chose it.

The odd title, “Coase’s Penguin…”, is a little pun: the penguin is of course the Linux logo while Coase is the Nobel-prized Ronald Coase who in the late ’30 wrote “The nature of the firm”, in which the motivation of the emergence of firms (intended as managed organizations) was explained. It’s the well known theory of the transactional costs, aiming to explain why the economy is mostly based on firms and hierarchic organizations rather than self-employed individuals operating in the market.

According to Benkler, the emergence of the free software movement represents a sort of third way of being in the market: the commons-based peer production. Starting from the free and open source software movement, Benkler identifies this strategy as peculiar to the information goods and analytically exposes the features and the problems of this solution.

It’s a very interesting discussion, from which I can extract a couple of points that in my opinion are very related to OER development and management:

1) The nature of the projects.

In the past weeks we learned about various models of OER projects. The main ones are driven by academic institutions, mostly funded by foundations, directed to offer high-quality, complete and “branded” coursewares. This model is more like the “firms model” in economy rather than free software model, because individuals are often engaged by their organizations, not on a full volunteer basis. Anyway, they works inside the organization, under the direction of the institutional management.

On the contrary, Wikipedia and other similar initiatives rely directly on individuals, independently of their eventual affiliation to any organization.

There are some hybrid cases, i.e. the OU OpenLearn LabSpace provides a development environment for individuals, based on original courses, but open to remix. The Connexions project is a repository of LO, open to contributions by anyone.

Anyway, it is important to note that only Wikipedia has presently a large-scale, worldwide dimension, while the others are generally valuable but still limited projects, still largely dependent from the main funding. We discussed about this issue last week, when we cope with sustainability issues.

The key point is: if we were able to identify the properties of successful large-scale commons-based projects, we could apply them to OER projects.

Benkler identifies some of these properties in:

a) motivation of the participants. It is necessary for a project to identify and offer to individuals some forms of rewards, especially non-monetary. In fact, in the volunteer peer-production monetary remuneration is not so important as hedonistic and socio-psychological rewards (besides it is often difficult to pay due to budget limitations…). For example, guaranteeing the visibility of the authors could be a better way, compared to anonymous contributions. If an author could acquire reputation through participation, it would be a valuable socio-psychological reward.

b) structure of the project. Peer production are best fitted with project that are modular, high-granular with a low-cost integration of the pieces. They should be modular for allowing individuals to indipendently author a small piece, the dimension (granularity) of this piece should be minimized for admitting occasional, small-sized contributions from everyone and, finally, these pieces should integrate without a high, centralized effort. Of course, the integration relates also with quality, which is attained mostly by peer-review. So, I want to add one more constraint, related to the size of the community: peer-reviewing is usually well done if the number of reviewers is high or they are very specialized (but this case would lead to rise integration costs…)

It seems the identikit of Wikipedia!

But OER are not only encyclopedias: more structured productions are neeed too, as textbooks or coursewares. Unfortunately, they have not all these characteristics… Maybe that in these cases, the “firm model” is more suitable, providing the necessary information and control for coherence and consistency. Furthermore, educational resources have often to be more contextualized than an encyclopedia entry. This implies the need for additional efforts and/or for specialized roles for participants.

As stated by Yu-Chun who addressed this book too, maybe “participants who take charge of the consistency for some contents are necessary”.

2) The intrinsec efficiency.

Benkler stresses a very important point about matching of resources and human capital. His theoretical conclusion is that

the widely distributed model of information production will better identify who is the best person to produce a specific component of a project

If it was true, we could obtain the better resources from the “crowds”! We have to admit that Wikipedia has effectively showed evidence of the average high quality of its entries, indirectly confirming this theory.

According to the author, this efficienfy is more effective in remixing and derivating from “information inputs”. Thus we can connect with the importance of lowering copyright: in this vision intellectual property rights are limits to this process. We need more openness to have the opportunity of widening the range of intellectual inputs!

I’m aware this is mostly theoretical , but it is important for demonstrating that peer-production is not only a sort of hobby for altruistic people but it can be grounded on a sound socio-economical theory. Be aware that contributors to Wikipedia are not only volunteers but they can have a role in the knowledge economy.

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6 Responses to “OpenEd: week 9”

  1. 1 Elisa Spadavecchia Nov 1st, 2007 at 12:40

    I quite agree on your considerations about peer-production. In Italy we are very individualistic and tend to cooperate only if we receive strong pressures (maybe from above…). We should learn that cooperation is not just a pose for a few idealistic people but an important development strategy in the knowledge economy and that growth and sustainability can grow far more easily from cooperation. Teachers should encourage their students to use these strategies in their learning activities.

  2. 2 Elisa Nov 1st, 2007 at 12:44

    Sorry, the previous comment had a wrong website url

  3. 3 Nuccia Silvana Pirruccello Nov 2nd, 2007 at 11:08

    I agree with Antonio and Elisa about peer-production and I would suggest to take our peer-work as a starting point, practise and experimenting it by ourselves. We would get, then, a range of right skills to apply peer production strategies with our students.

    Before taking part to this Course on Open Education, I was quite reluctant to accept the educational value of crossblogging. I’m a slow blogger myself but now I’ve learned how to make a good use of it.

  1. 1 iterating toward openness » Blog Archive » Open Ed Spottings Week 9 Pingback on Nov 3rd, 2007 at 19:08
  2. 2 OpenEd -WEEK TEN cross-blogging « Student&Teacher CHIT-CHAT BUS Pingback on Nov 4th, 2007 at 13:23
  3. 3 Google Knol at Anto’stuff Pingback on Dic 15th, 2007 at 17:22

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