Inundated by familiar arguments regarding open content, debates on re-use, freemium business models for open content publishers, moral and economic arguments for open textbooks and so on, by David Wiley at #Change11, I can’t help but ask – Is Content King?

Content is king for publishers, authors and institutions in the educational context. This is because, as equated to a textbook or interactive digital learning object, it represents structured interpretations of the domain, vetted through a process of academic scrutiny, and backed by the repute of the author. Often, it degrades into corrupt practices at the institutional level itself, but broadly users and subscribers to the content ascribe value to these outputs, both economic and academic. With open content, there is also a moral (access, freedom) argument. Like other things – LABs, classrooms, teachers, software systems and libraries – an institution treats such content as an essential foundation of learning.

Over time, with the digital variants emerging on new devices, the representation of content in educational contexts has also evolved, but the essential structure remains the same. It is perhaps apt to question the importance we give to the medium at this point. The textbook, as a constrained medium – as an imposition of structure on a non-linear learning process, as an output of decisions regarding the finiteness,  as a representation of the periodicity of the “semester” or the “term”, tied inextricably to the concept of the educational system, predicative of the level of learning & intellectual advancement – in effect, removes the conversation from learning and constrains the learning process in many other ways. It is also fairly impervious to context – both learner and environment. It is an attempt at standardization with personalization left to the wiles of the unsuspecting and often ill-equipped teacher. Wiley himself acknowledges the reusability paradox – the more context laden (read “richer”) a piece of learning content, the less it can be reused.

Taking a medium like this and making it open is as anachronistic as the first generation of eLearning – converting the textbook into interactive digital variants. So long as we consider the textbook as the foundation, we are condemned to operate within its constraints.

Stephen proclaimed the “end of paper” as a threat to the open content model. However, both the claims – of open content models and of the end of paper – are severely located in the context of these developments. It is easy to get carried away and ignore the main problems – that most of the growth in population of learners in the world is not going to happen in these contexts, which are already tanking on GER (Gross Enrolment Ratios). “Online” is still the preserve of the developed nation. The low cost tablet does provide a feasible alternative to the delivery challenge in other nations. The problem is that these other nations are swept away in the hype and perpetuate open content promises to an unresponsive or simply “unable” audience.

Wiley himself provides a possible solution, that of OSOSS (online self-organizing social systems). The “noise” in such systems often puts real world academics off, as also the debate between “academic and everyday knowledge”. But such systems are, by definition, complex systems. The only discordant note to me is the use of the word “online”, as the most relevant prefix. We have to investigate models where online is the most efficient possibility, but other models of conversation exist and are promoted. It is like going back to CCK08, when I asked the stupid question – what would happen to connectivism if the technology did not exist?  Can we think of a paradigm where the poor get richer than a model where the rich get richer?

Content is not just textbooks or eLearning courseware. But somehow, there is a lack of imagination (or perhaps we are still not that state of art), in conceiving options beyond these delivery-oriented keywords. Sure, there have been a lot of initiatives (like the MOOCs) that attempt to break this paradigm, and I hope they succeed in bringing the complexity perspective into education.

To really leverage open content, we must break away from the constraints of the textbook or the eLearning course. We must encourage diversity. For example, my idea of open content would be to take a concept and open it up to the entire world to write their interpretation of it. By implication, the context richness would provide many opportunities for non-linear real life learning. So instead of looking at content vertically (hierarchies of domain trees and curricula), publishers would look at it in a networked manner with clusters of self-similar nodes. In that situation, learners and teachers would both find it instantly easier to locate in-context learning content. In one stroke, then, the reusability paradox would also be resolved, simply through scale.

No real-world system today looks at content that way. The same way for search. If I want to learn about the reusability paradox and I respect David Wiley and Stephen Downes for their seminal ideas around it (top two articles on Google?), I should be able to access the network of content in and around their contributions, plus curations. So I am not searching a digital repository for keywords that an IMS standard predicates, but I am able to put a filter through nodes that are not content items to get to the content I need. And what if there was really an offline way of doing this, so that more and more people could learn that way?

In summary, please let us think out of the box and in a global context.