Problems gain (or lose) interestingness as their context and scale changes.
Take teaching a kids to read as an example. It’s almost inevitable that a child will learn to read given the following ingredients:
A supportive family
A strong reading culture at home
A steady supply of good books
A reasonable curriculum or methodology for teaching
An well educated, motivated teacher (who could be a parent) who cares about the child who shows up consistently
A safe, relatively comfortable, relatively calm environment
An absence of specific learning difficulties
These factors form a strong, mutually reinforcing (and robust and self-repairing) network/system that makes learning to read more a matter of process than a problem, per se. If one or two of these ingredients are weak or missing, strength in another area will probably make up the difference. The outcome (learning to read) might take a bit more time, but it will happen.
But the more ingredients that are missing from the system – the looser or weaker the network – the harder (and more interesting) the problem becomes. It’s no longer a case of due process, but of finding a path and doing something new.
Note: Links to resources are at the bottom. The footnotes are worth reading.
On Thursday I attended ‘Creative Commons Basics’, a webinar hosted by the Global Reading Network. It was very good.
Cable Green, Director of Open Education at Creative Commons, made an excellent presentation about the basics of Creative Commons licensing, followed by Q&A. I’ve done a fair bit of reading about CC licenses, but the clarity of the presentation and the texture of the examples shared really helped me to get a better understanding of how CC works.
Here are some highlights:
Education as sharing
Among other things, education is fundamentally about sharing.
Knowledge is an interesting kind of public good: once shared it’s non-excludable (it can’t be taken away) and it’s non-rivalrous (you having it doesn’t stop me from having it).* We didn’t get into how knowledge benefits from network effects (your knowledge can make mine more valuable), but that’s worth mentioning too.**
A moral imperative
Given the non-rivalrous nature of knowledge, Cable argued for the moral imperative to share it: if we can help people by sharing knowledge at (next to) no cost to us – something the internet enables – then we’re morally obliged to do so***
The internet enables; copyright forbids
Almost all educational resources are created digitally (text, audio, video)
The internet enables the sharing of digital resources at effectively no cost****
Copyright restricts or forbids sharing and therefore, Cable argues, restricts education either directly or indirectly (see below)…
Free as in libre
Cable discussed the key distinction between free as in gratis – at no cost (the traditional internet description of this is “free as in, ‘free beer.'”) – and free as in ‘libre‘ or ‘at liberty’.
The difference is important: there are lots of resources available online that are free (no cost), but copyrighted, meaning that ownership or use is
precarious, in the sense that the copyright holder can revoke the right to use it, and has legal means to enforce their ownership
rigid, meaning that users don’t have the freedom to adapt and re-purpose the original material, or to give it away.
The clearest examples of these things are probably in the world of proprietary software where the source code isn’t accessible to users, and where licensing agreements expressly forbid editing and sharing with others.
The 5 Rs of Open Education
The antidote that Open Education offers to these restrictions are the five Rs (courtesy of David Wiley), enabled by Creative Commons licensing:
Retain – the right to make, own, and control copies of the content (e.g., download, duplicate, store, and manage);
Reuse – the right to use the content in a wide range of ways (e.g., in a class, in a study group, on a website, in a video);
Revise – the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself (e.g., translate the content into another language);
Remix – the right to combine the original or revised content with other material to create something new (e.g., incorporate the content into a mashup);
Redistribute – the right to share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others (e.g., give a copy of the content to a friend).
CC licenses are a free, open public framework intended to make it easy for creators to share their works widely while still retaining ownership of the work – that is to say, without transferring them entirely to the public domain (i.e. giving up their status as owners of the work).
CC Licenses are made up of combination of the following yes/no options:
BY: If you use it, you have to attribute it to the original author in the new text. More on attribution here.
SA: Share Alike means that you have to share any derivative works under the same license as the original
NC: Non-commercial. You can redistribute it as long as you don’t make a profit doing so. Note that charging for work to cover reasonable reproduction costs and overheads (e.g. getting the work printed by a commercial printer and selling it for the cost of printing) has been ruled acceptable practice by a court in New York. Note also that this does not prevent others from making a profit from a service based on the CC:NC work (e.g. by charging for a course using the work, or a performance of the work).
ND: No derivatives. You are allowed to use the work for any purpose, but are not allowed to re-mix or change the work in any way.
For any of these licenses you are not required to contact the licensor for permission to use it
These restrictions are not binding on the holder of the copyright – that is to say, if you share your own work under a CC: NC ND license, you are free to use it however you wish, including making a profit from the work and remixing it: “The NonCommercial limitation applies to licensed uses only and does not restrict use by the licensor.”
Note also that once a work is (legitimately) released under a CC license, the license is irrevocable – the work can’t be “un-CCed”… but the creator can make a different (revised) version of the work and keep it under any restrictions they wish.
Materials shared with any kind of CC: ND license do not fulfill the criteria of the 5Rs outlined above.
A Hierarchy of Free-ness
Links and Resources
Cable finished off by sharing a set of links to resources or interesting use cases of CC. Here they are:
Case study (video): What happened with the Netherlands’ Rijksmuseum CCd / open sourced its collection
Phew. Thanks again to Cable Green of Creative Commons and the Global Reading Network for an excellent seminar. In the spirit of Creative Commons and Open Education Cable is sharing the presentation under a CC license – I’ll share a link to video and slides if and when I have one!
Update: Here’s a .pdf of the slides form the session:
*I say “an interesting type of public good” because until it’s been shared it’s scarce and excludable.
**There are negative network effects to some knowledge too (you having them makes mine less valuable)
*** We didn’t get into cases where the fact that people have paid for resources makes them more useful – more likely that they’ll have an impact because a better quality of attention will be paid to them so that they’re more likely to be understood deeply, used and spread – and make it more likely that more resources will be created. Seth Godin is doing interesting experiments around this with the combination of his blog and free materials , podcast, and the Akimbo workshops.
****At no cost unless, in some cases, making them free reduces their value.*
While findability comes first, we must also remember that categories are about more than retrieval. Classification helps our users to understand.
Through splitting, lumping and labeling, we reveal choices and invite questions.
Of course, all taxonomies are imperfect, as is the language they’re built on… like maps and myths, taxonomies hide more than they reveal. They bury complexity to tell a story, and they always miss someone out. Some things, like luggage, get lost by accident, while others – people, places, ideas – are buried by design.
“Each category valorizes some point of view and silences another. This is not inherently a bad thing – indeed, it is inescapable. But it is an ethical choice, and as such it is dangerous – not bad, but dangerous.”
Niall Ferguson was speaking at the Long Now Foundation, responding to a question from Stewart Brand about how ads and the profit-motive influenced the nature of search and the internet echo-chamber.
Google and Facebook in particular are platforms driven by user-engagement and time-on-platform (the source of their ad revenue) and as a result tend to give us more of what we like or agree with already, filtering out sources that might challenge our views.
If you look back on the way the printing press developed, there was a for profit wing that ultimately did finance itself by selling ads, and it evolved into newspapers and magazines.
But that was only a fraction of all the printed content that was out there. Most printed content was accessible free through things called libraries, and libraries were non profit.
Public libraries gradually began to spread in the protestant realms because remember, Protestantism insisted on literacy. A country like mine, Scotland, went from very low literacy to very high literacy because of the reformation. Schools had libraries. Books were regarded as a public good. And this meant that most printed content was not provided by profit making institutions. It was essentially free, and crucially, catalogued in increasingly effective and – I’ll call them objective – ways.
Anybody who’s spent time in one of the great libraries of the world, say the Cambridge University Library, knows that the books are sorted in such a way that you find the book that you’re after, and next to it are books on similar topics. This is an incredibly valuable thing if you’re doing serious research.
Google is not like that. You may think that Google is like that, but you’re wrong, because that is not how search works…
… producing books with ease on Gutenberg’s press did not fully unleash text. Real literacy also required a long list of innovations and techniques that permitted ordinary readers and writers to manipulate text in ways that made it useful. For instance, quotation symbols make it simple to indicate where one has borrowed text from another writer. We don’t have a parallel notation in film yet, but we need one.
Once you have a large text document, you need a table of contents to find your way through it. That requires page numbers. Somebody invented them in the 13th century. Where is the equivalent in video?
Longer texts require an alphabetic index, devised by the Greeks and later developed for libraries of books. Someday soon with AI we’ll have a way to index the full content of a film.
Footnotes, invented in about the 12th century, allow tangential information to be displayed outside the linear argument of the main text. And that would be useful in video as well.
And bibliographic citations (invented in the 13th century) enable scholars and skeptics to systematically consult sources that influence or clarify the content. Imagine a video with citations. These days, of courses we have hyperlinks, which connect one piece of text to another, and tags, which categorise using a selected word or phrase for later viewing.
All these inventions (and more) permit any literate person to cut and paste ideas, annotate them with her own thoughts, link them to related ideas, search through vast libraries of work, browse subjects quickly, resequence texts, refind material, remix ideas, quote experts, and sample bits of beloved artists.
These tools, more than reading, are the foundations of literacy.
Here’s a first try on the importance of fundamentals in learning.
Imagine you are holding a long stick – better yet, a sword or lightsaber – representing your ability to make a difference in the world.
The far end of the stick is the part that you’ll make the greatest impact with. It moves fastest, reaches furthest, hits hardest.
But it’s useless if you don’t know who or what you’re fighting for (and/or against).
And everything the end of the sword does depends on what happens at the handle. You need a good grip, and the part closest to the handle needs to be – I think – the strongest part of the sword (armourers?).
A small change in the person holding the sword, a small movement of the hilt, makes a huge difference to what happens at the pointy end.
Lee must have had something about him – he became editor at 19 – but here’s the thing: he slogged it out writing comics – westerns, crime stories, horror and superhero work – for twenty two years without really hitting the big time. They say he chose Stan Lee as a pen name because he was worried he’d be embarrassed by his work in comics if he ever wrote the Great American Novel.
By the early 60s Lee was fed up, and ready to quit. The Fantastic Four was a last throw of the dice on his wife’s suggestion that he try writing the comics he wanted to write. There was nothing to lose.
He was forty-one years old.
The rest is history.
What if Stan Lee had never written the fantastic four?
Put aside AI and machine learning for a minute, and ask instead:
“What does it take to equip a human to be self-teaching?”
As a starting point – how many lines of code does it take to make a child who can read with fluency and ease and with critical understanding, and who loves reading, and is motivated to read and learn more?
We just tidied my kids’ bookcase, and I took a moment – okay, more than a moment – to count the books.
There are 519 books on this book case (including those on the floor and nearby that should be on it).
There are picture books, stories, touch-and-feel books, comics, small novels, catalogues, phonics books, kids bibles, magazines, science books, poetry, stories and non-fiction books about other cultures, lots of books about cars, even a couple of hand-written and coloured books by his great aunt, and a couple of notebooks with short and often unfinished stories that he’s written himself.
He’s had them read and re-read to him by a range of people, had pictures pointed out, words explained, sounds and meanings spelled out, questions asked.
He’s listened, looked, laughed, frowned, cried on occasion, got fed up, desperately begged to have them read to him, been indifferent.
And he’s read them repeatedly by himself: browsed their pages, poured over the pictures, flicked through them, gone back to favourite bits again and again, skipped the endings or skipped to the endings, tried out the words, phrases and attitudes, in the real world come to us with questions, absorbed our answers, disagreed with our interpretations, shared with us bits that he’s loved, come to us with things that have scared him, made up stories just like them, and new stories of his own.
Did I mention the 250 leveled reading books – the books specifically designed to help kids learn to read – that live upstairs? Here’s a selection:
Or the books we’ve borrowed from friends or read at their houses, the books read at or borrowed from libraries?
Or the ebooks?
He’s probably read about a thousand books.*
190,000 and the less-than-one-percent
But it’s not just about numbers – which books he’s read is as important as how many. Most of these books are a custom selection, just for him, made by someone with his current tastes and future growth in mind (my wife is something of a book-picking phenomenon) from the roughly 190,000 books aimed at children under 12 that are available to him in our culture.**
So the selection on these shelves represents the tip of a huge pyramid – roughly the best, most engaging and most appropriate 0.5% of books written for people like him.
Don’t forget the wrapper
That – the books themselves and the wrapper of love, support, enthusiasm, the culture of curiosity and valuing education, the relative affluence, and living in an economy that makes books like these cheaper than ever before if you bide your time and look out for deals – is what it takes to produce a solid reader at age seven or eight.
*I’ll try to estimate how many words this represents another time **My point of reference for this was the number of books available on Amazon.co.uk – see this post for more information.
Rule 3: Serve Clients Eager to Pay for what you do (part 2)
In a nutshell, Seth says that if someone isn’t eager to pay, they’re not your client. You get to pick. So work for people eager to pay.
Eager to pay and scaling the non-profit
This is where the bootstrapping mindset comes into its own in the world of non-profits and social programs. If you can find clients who are not only eager to “pay” time, attention and effort to user your product or service, but to actually pay money… you know you not only have a product that they think is valuable, but one that can cover some of its own costs – or better, cover all of its own costs. Or better, cover its own costs, with a little left over.
We’ve pretty much reached this point at the literacy non-profit I work for in Indonesia, and the potential is huge. Instead of looking at our bank balance and asking how many groups we can help, we’re looking at ourselves and asking how we can get better at what we do so that we can serve more groups – because the growth is paying for itself.
Our program is far from polished and perfect, but it seems to be working. In the old days we had a list of people waiting for our program – waiting for us to find the money to be able to train them. Now the people on the waiting list are finding their own money – and the wait is a lot shorter.
In fact, doing it this way has allowed us to serve more groups as a gift – not ‘for free’ but ‘at our expense, as a gift, because we love what you do’ – than we did back in the day when it was free.
Finding the clients who are eager to pay might well help you get your product or service to more of the people who are eager, but can’t.