Thoughts on some OER FAQs

In advocating for OER on my campus, I’ve run into many misconceptions. I’ve also found a few people who are helping to spread some of these misconceptions. This FAQ is a useful document for addressing some of them.

OER help “to ensure that resources are up-to-date

How up-to-date are commercial textbooks? There is an investment of time and money that goes into revisions and printing new editions, so publishers don’t want to do that any more than necessary. They also have a vested interest in eliminating the market for used books, so there is a financial benefit to updating editions frequently. Faculty can OER whenever they please, due to the Creative Commons permissions. Some may see this as a drawback, if they would rather have someone else be responsible for keeping materials current. I can see benefits to building the updating process into a course though. Students could look to current research, events and issues to see how they intersect with course subject matter, and be charged with proposing revisions. This type of an assignment would have them actively thinking about the relevance of what they’re learning, how they are learning it, and how to get ideas and concepts across to others. Students would gain experience in managing their own learning processes at the some time as they learn the course content.

Can OER be high quality if it is free?

Are commercial textbooks high quality because they’re expensive? What kind of review process do they actually go through? How do we rate quality anyway? What factors are considered important? What matters is student learning and student success. Writing, editing and design will have an impact on that. So will accessibility and cost. I imagine it is relatively easy to compare textbook A to textbook B and decide which is better based on content and presentation. It would be more difficult to determine if textbook A is $100 better than textbook B, or if students would derive $100 more of value from it. Due to CC permissions, OER can be modified to fit the needs of an institution, a department, an instructor, and a group of students. They can be continually modified to improve student success.

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Book clubbing

This morning we had another episode of Jim’s Monogamous Book Club, and a great time was had by all the participants and the one listener. We had a rambling discussion of Jack London, The Iron Heel, and plotted to make it a regular thing.

The book

I think it was in reading about The Twenty Days of Turin that the book came to my attention. Since ds106 is currently looking at post-apocalyptic dystopias, I thought it might be appropriate to take a look at The Iron Heel and how it fits in. It’s been described as possibly the earliest example of dystopian fiction, a pre-apocalyptic proto-dystopia, if you will.

It’s utopian as well, in a way. While the main narrative takes place in the early 20th century, 1912-1932, beginning a few years after London was writing, it also has editorial interjections from a utopian future 700 years later. London gives us his nightmare vision of a near future, and also reflects on it as a distant past. What he doesn’t give us is an kind of picture of what that utopia looks like, or how society got there. On one hand, it makes for a fascinating structure, and on the other, it feels like a cop-out. The narrative of the novel actually ends mid-sentence, as if London didn’t know how to wrap it up or where to go from there. He just stopped, and had his editor from the future provide a closing thought.

Which brings up the question: Is it a good book? It feels like an odd question to ask, since we both invested time in reading it, thinking about it, and discussing it. It makes for interesting discussion, as a product of its time, as a vision (sometimes eerily accurate) of the near future, and for how it is relevant to today’s world. It is also tedious, sometimes pedantic, often unreflective, and lacking in nuance or subtlety. I wondered if London might be making a comment on the vacuousness of the newly-minted True Believer, but apparently he was one himself. As Jim pointed out, the most compelling parts of the story, the Red Virgin and the terrorist organizations, are only mentioned in passing, when they could be worth a novel in themselves.

The book club

Jim and I enjoy these discussions, and we both feel a need to read more, so we talked about making it a regular thing. He suggested doing a book a week, which we sort of did during True Crime, but I thought doing that for a whole year would be Martin Weller type heroics. So we decided on every other week – a book a fortnight. It’s a challenge we can meet. Keeping it up for a whole year is a bit of a commitment in light of everything else we have to do, but it should be a worthy project. In keeping with the themes of The Twenty Days and The Iron Heel, our future plans include Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, Leo Perutz’ St. Peter’s Snow, and The Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler.

And this may tie into an idea I’ve been toying with for a while. I’ve seen a few discussions of canonical graphic novels in the past few years and they all put the same three at the top of the list: Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and Maus, all of which come from 1986. Since they’ve all been dissected to death, I’m interested in looking at antecedents. I’m thinking Ronin, V for Vendetta or Saga of the Swamp Thing, and American Flagg!, and as they are all products of the 80s, they should be right up Jim’s alley. And they’re light weight enough so that we could actually get through them in the time frame we’ve given ourselves.

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Kick the Ballistics

The other day a gun lobby spokesperson said that the media love mass shootings. This predictably caused some controversy, but the main point is true: if it bleeds, it leads. Stories of tragedy draw attention, and attention is monetized in advertising. What interested me about the statement was that it is exactly what I often think of the gun lobby. Mass shootings are followed by spike in firearm sales, because some people worry that this time there will be legislation. Mass shootings are like xmas for gun sales.

…the love of money is the root of all evil (1 Tim 6:10)

But the truth is no one loves it when children get murdered. Owners and investors love profits. That doesn’t mean they are particularly happy about the circumstances. The profit motive impacts how they respond. The way news media reports on these tragedies sensationalizes them. It inspires copycats. A more moral course would be to downplay the sensationalism, like they do with reporting on suicides, but that raises the spectre of a loss of market share, and lower profits. Similarly, the firearm industry response to these tragedies is that people should buy more guns. That won’t make people more safe or less tense, and it makes weapons more available to those who would misuse them. Making weapons less easily available would have a negative impact on profits though. For the love of money…

I’m no scholar, but even I knew that was a quote from scripture. The context is interesting. Prior to the verse is an instruction to stay away from snark and polarization, and those who would profit from them. Later in the chapter is a commandment to the rich to share their wealth – a highly polarizing proposition in the US today.

Give me a nickel, brother can you spare a dime
Money can drive some people out of their minds (O’Jays)

Going back to the start, my main takeaway is that I am just as inclined to contribute to polarization as anyone else, apparently. Something I should watch out for. If we want to be healing and unifying, we shouldn’t try to be united against others, but rather united for something. Us, rather than us vs. them. Easier said than done. Anyway, here’s Troop and Levert to kick the ballistics:

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Random thoughts on Polarization and Iron

I’m thinking about Chris Gilliard’s provocation for EngageMOOC in the context of The Iron Heel, which I’m currently reading courtesy of the Internet Archive.

Unfortunately I’ve never read A People’s History, so I’m just now getting the terminological connection to people’s republics, which ties to London’s vector of history. His novel sees the mass of people, the workers, divided, polarized and conquered by the Oligarchy (or plutocracy or 1%). They suffer for centuries following the events of the novel, until the purgatory of the Oligarchy gives way to the utopian Brotherhood of Man. Which also seems to bear a distinct mark of polarization – perhaps London wasn’t as egalitarian as he thought himself.

In The Iron Heel, workers’ unions are pitted against each other. Some are favored and given privileges in exchange for not standing in solidarity with their brethren. I see something similar today in public discourse, where unions, outside of the FOP, are considered lazy, corrupt and parasitic. In my own place of work, we expect administration soon to pit adjuncts against full-timers in order to decertify and break the union. All of which benefits the few over the many.

Gilliard mentions cyberlibertarianism. Will the computer set you free, or does the computer reinforce power structures an hierarchy? Bernes-Lee built the web to connect people to people – potentially unifying and liberating. Zuckerberg blocked off a chunk of the web and made it easy for people to connect with each other, but under his terms and conditions. We can have domains of our own, but it is marginally easier to set up shop in Zuck’s lobster trap.

Lobster trap, CC-BY 2013 by Blondinrikard Fröberg

The view of Silicon Valley as the seat of the technological power, built on the ground of segregation, relates as well, since The Iron Heel treads the very same locale. Maybe London picked the setting because it was his stomping grounds. He wrote this book right after the great earthquake, so I can imagine why dystopia might have been on his mind.

The issue of Citizens United also has a parallel in the novel:

The Plutocracy has all power in its hands to-day. It to-day makes the laws, for it owns the Senate, Congress, the courts, and the state legislatures. And not only that. Behind law must be force to execute the law. To-day the Plutocracy makes the law, and to enforce the law it has at its beck and call the, police, the army, the navy, and, lastly, the militia, which is you, and me, and all of us.

That last reference, to the militia, refers to the Militia Act of 1903, which gave the government the power to draft all able-bodied men aged 17-45. The sort of vulgar display of power suits the unsubtlety of the book. Today, “you, and me, and all of us” are part of surveillance capitalism, a crowd sourced panopticon working in conjunction with mobilized armies of trolls, bots and sockpuppets to manage the people. We’ve had no shortage of vulgar displays, especially over past year, but that’s not where power exercises control.

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Rock Pockets

“It’s Hot Pockets Day on the Daily Create!”
“Didn’t we already talk about this?”
“I’m making Rock Pockets.”
“What – you’re going to put Aerosmith inside a Hot Pocket?”
That wouldn’t be a bad idea, and could be a whole ‘nother meme. But I thought the Hot Pocket picture reminded me of a geode, so that gave me a different direction in which to take the meme.

I had to manipulate the type as well as the image, but luckily I had everything I needed for the “Rock” already – just copy the beginning of “Pockets” and copy the diagonal leg of the K onto the P. For the image, I found a stock photo of a green agate geode rock with crystals.

In hindsight, I should have used something with a CC license – I really should make it a habit to start looking with CC Search, because I know better – but old habits die hard apparently. I was the angle of the shot and the white background that grabbed me, so I impulsively grabbed it. For the text, I just called it what it is, but I felt it needed something more so I googled geode and found the page from and borrowed their subheading. So, there – credit where credit is due.

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The dance card

I’ve heard the expression, “My dance card is full,” and knew from context that it meant someone was busy. I never really thought about the etymology of the phrase though. But today I was listening to a Librivox recording of Richard Marsh’s 1897 horror novel The Beetle and I recognized the source of the expression.

In olden times, at formal parties, people would schedule dances with each other. A person would have a card or booklet listing all the tunes that were to be played, in order, with a space to write in the names of dance partners. The Wikipedia entry has images of some cards.

Programme du Bal, from

This fascinates me because it is so alien to my experience, yet the expression is something I have known for a long time.

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Rockwell had the idea…

Yesterday’s Daily Create involved using an online application to stylize an image. I had seen something like this before and thought it was pretty cool, so I gave it a shot.

I used an image from the Church of San Lorenzo which I first saw heading an article on The Twenty Days of Turin. No special reason – it just popped into my head. None of the apps default styles really grabbed me, but I thought the printed circuit board one had potential. I liked the output. It’s hard for me to tell how well the Dr. Doom-like visage comes through. I see it because I know it’s there, but it also seems buried in the circuitry. As I thought more about it this morning, it occurred to me that it makes an apt visual metaphor for the current interpretation of de Maria’s novel and the idea of surveillance capitalism. I wasn’t thinking of any of that intentionally when I did it. It was more of a subconscious inspiration, I suppose.

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A day in the life of a night prowler

Our Daily Create today was End Sounds. For whatever reason, the first thing I thought of was the voice at the end of AC/DC’s Highway to Hell album, saying “Shazbot! Nanu nanu.” Someone actually made a supercut of the endings of all the AC/DC songs, but if I recall correctly, they left that part out. There’s a little chord just after, so maybe that’s why.

I couldn’t just use that though. It would be too much like googling for an image rather than making one. I also thought of the iconic closing chord to A Day in a Life from the Sgt. Pepper album as an end sound, so I grafted the two together. Would that get past the copyright police? I wasn’t sure. But since that closing chord runs the better part of a minute, I figured it needed some manipulation. I used the Change Tempo function in Audacity to speed it up, and I stuck the AC/DC part in the middle of the long fadeout. I left AC/DC’s little chord in there, so I clipped the Beatles at that point. I don’t know. It’s something.

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Stanky Bean

Screen Shot 2017-12-23 at 8.38.33 AM

Today’s Daily Create says to “Colorize a Photo with a Silly Color.” Sounds like fun. First I needed a silly color. If I were creatively inclined, I’d probably make one up, but since I’m lazy, I googled “invent a color” and found this list of AI-generated colors. I happened to be listening to Mississippi Fred McDowell (Youtube playlist) as when I came across the TDC, and that color Ronching Blue seemed like a natural fit for Mississippi Fred. I grabbed the picture from Wikimedia Commons. You might’ve recognized that Ronching Blue was a bit too gray for colorizing, but I tried it anyway, with predictable results. But Stanky Bean had a silly name and some nice color to it, so I used that for my second try. Conveniently, the AI list gave the RGB values and the colorizing tool had a way to input the values. Inconveniently, the download function didn’t capture the color change. But the right-click, Save Image function worked so here you have it:

Mississippi Fred

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of comprehension, context and compassion

The great Jane Secker published a list of student views of information literacy earlier today:

Of course they’re not just any students. They’re library and information science students, and as such are developing an understanding of info lit at a different level from most, as something to teach, to advocate for, to guide their practice. So it’s interesting to see what they have to say.

I’ve long taken issue with the way info lit is framed. That’s something I’ve talked about at OpenEd. I think my profession has tended to define it down, oversimplify it, so we can do our one-shot instruction sessions and crudely assess them and pretend we’re successful. While that does help students complete their assignments successfully, and perhaps enhance their learning along the way, it doesn’t go so far in preparing them for life or lifelong learning.

I see that narrow view of info lit well represented in the list. It is encultured in us. But there are hints of something larger as well.

Comprehend information and its context.

It’s a deceptively simple phrase. Comprehension is not a yes/no thing. We can understand information at many different levels, deeply to superficially. And context is not a singular thing. Information derives meaning not just from its context within a document, but also from who delivers it, how, when and where, and a host of other social, cultural, political and economic considerations. This makes me think of those criticisms of the CRAAP test, where people assert or assume that context isn’t part of it.

Why need info. Why heed info

I like the poetry in this one. Again, it hides its depth, as it implies a critical examination of context, relevance and authority.

Empowering people with the skills to search for information / knowledge

Perhaps this illustrates the crux of the issue. The “skills to search” can be a relatively simple ability to use an interface. “information” likewise can be interpreted simply, as in something that fits the criteria specified for an undergrad research paper. What really matters is in the bookends – empowering people to build their knowledge. I see that as learning how to learn, to engage in informed learning.

It matters because information is necessary for knowledge and compassion and all the things.”

Yes, all the things that we need to be free and human in today’s world. This was the problem with the old ACRL standards. They envisioned info lit as what you need to get through a college research paper. That’s one thing, or maybe some things, but hardly all, and in no way related to compassion. I don’t think I’ve ever seen compassion listed as an info lit outcome. Is it written out because it’s like understanding – too hard to measure, and therefore not worth considering? Is it written out because we don’t value it? Or vice versa? But it is vital and necessary, especially in today’s world, if we are to live and grow as free people. Including it was a brilliant insight.

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