Free this Book: Open Access Humanities for the MOOCs

Steal-This-Book-posterI’ve been thinking about how the movement for Open Access to humanities & social-science work might intersect usefully with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).

At least a few specific directions occur to me as worth exploring with any of these organizations (key MOOC players include Coursera, Udacity, Khan Academy, Harvard/MIT-led EdX, Udemy, Futurelearn in UK and Stanford-run platforms Class2Go and VentureLab).

  1. Use Open Access course materials for MOOCs
  2. Connect new scholarly peer-review models to MOOC peer evaluation

1) Use Open Access course materials for MOOCs

The MOOCs are starting to expand beyond their current focus on engineering topics, quite possibly towards humanities and social-science areas whose courses typically involve much more and more varied published materials such as scholarly essays, articles, & books. There’s likely to be a huge market there if lower-level classes in these areas start to be offered as MOOCs with transferable accreditation, and get unbundled from the much higher per-credit-cost, traditional higher-ed.

A University offering a course via one of the MOOC platforms usually enrolls students beyond its regular student base. This means it can’t rely on students being able to access a common set of licensed content, which is typically the case for regularly enrolled students with access to the university library system. Also, in moving to MOOCs, the university is moving towards a different and cheaper cost structure than that which has supported those expensive, library-negotiated content site licenses and acquisitions (into the millions of dollars per year on most  campuses).

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Dreaming of open knowledge, settling for access to publicly funded science

I posted this reply to Peter Suber’s post about recent U.S. Federal proposed legistation (the FASTR bill) and White House policy directive calling for Open Access to the results of most Federally-funded “scientific research”.

Today’s Open Access policy directive from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is great news. However, I’m struck by the pervasive conflation of “scientific research” with “all publicly funded research” or of open access generally, in almost all reporting or discussion of the OSTP memo and the related FASTR bill recently submitted by Sen. Wyden. The bill and memo explicitly refer only to scientific research, and their terms seem to leave it unclear if or how their policies would apply to key humanities funders such as NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities, $150M budget) and IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Studies, $240M budget), and perhaps to social sciences work, or to “research” outside of the obvious cases of peer-reviewed research literature and data.

Many science advocates or open access advocates may find other fields marginal to irrelevant, often basing that on funding figures — a view I’ve often heard. Of course, the NIH’s $30B dwarfs the NEH’s budget, but scientific research is also vastly more expensive than humanities work. In the big picture, most research/scholarly funding is in the form of employee compensation and facilities, an amount much larger than the sums explicitly accounted as “research” funds, and this pays for vast areas of non-STEM [Scientific, Technical, Engineering, Medical] output. Also, funds and policies from agencies like NEH, IMLS, and the Smithsonian catalyze and shape much larger funding flows at state and local level, and academic and foundation sectors.

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Humanities and Open Access: comment on Nature article

current issue of Nature, 07 Feb 2013

current issue of Nature, 07 Feb 2013

Nature ran a News piece on 06 Feb, “Researchers opt to limit uses of open-access publications,” by Richard Van Noorden. As the subtitle summarizes:

Advocates of open publishing fret that misunderstandings lead scientists to choose restrictive licenses.

There were various interesting responses in the comments (which Nature places quite in-view at bottom of article, and which refute the common claim that online commenting is a cesspool. Well done, all). 

Ross Mounce – PhD student in phylogeny at University of Bath, and Open Knowledge Foundation Panton Fellow – made the useful empirical point that “the vast majority of good open access journals (those that are Thompson Reuters Journal Citation Reports  listed) use the CC BY licence” (which allows future use, republication, by any party in any way, essentially requiring only attribution). [note: I see Ross has posted a great follow-up article on his site, “Further info about the licences that free/open access journals use.” Check it out].

Kaitlin Thaney, well-known open-science advocate, Manager of External Relationships for Digital Science, London, commented,

[licenses] listed, beyond CC-BY (a legal implementation of Open Access), are not Open Access. Slightly more open? It’s arguable. OA, most definitely not.”

Since the humanistically inclined, like me, are often resistent to the digital, in the sense of the Yes/Not binary — if not also in the sense of being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century – I was moved to add a comment. I suggested that this strict notion of Open Access is not historically a full picture: as a favorite Nietzsche aphorism says, “only something which has no history can be defined.”

Pragmatically, I suggest such a binary defintion may not include or helpfully address the concerns of non-science disciplines, doing which is a key aspect of my Open Library of Humanities project. (which Ross, incidentally, helped to suggest).

Below is my full comment, which you can also read the comment on Nature’s site.

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Steering between incivility and insularity

Appiah, “Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers” (2007).

Appiah, “Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers” (2007).

A spate of blog posts in the past week have focused on issues of academic online civility and community: Kathleen Fitzpatrick‘s “If You Can’t Say Anything Nice” (25 Jan), my response “If You Can’t Hear Anything Nice,” her response “Disagreement,” my response “Behave, Listen Well, and Design for Liberality,” Dan Cohen‘s “The Sidewalk Life of Successful Communities,” Ryan Cordell‘s “Mea Culpa: on Conference Tweeting, Politeness, and Community Building,” Tressie McMillan Cottom‘s “What’s In A Name?“, Lee Bessette‘s “Twitter Controversies,” Roger T. Whitson‘s “Twitter Bully,” etc.

Generally, commentators are focused on the problems of unacceptable or inappropropriate public shaming, disrespectful critique or “quick complaint.”  I don’t condone such things, but would like to add the observation that responding to perceived incivility or social inappropriateness too absolutely or zealously has perils of its own. Intellectual inquiry has to steer carefully and self-critically between many pitfalls and dead-ends, including not only incivility but also insularity, like-mindedness, and an unwilllingness to engage with difficult speech or conflicting norms. This is admittedly a difficult project, continually beset by the enclosing aspects of our habits, our cognitive biases, our disciplines and our institutions. But in that regard, academics and intellectuals are, or should be, like Avis: we try harder.

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