Open-source learning*

Development Policy01 May 2010Janelle Ward

I’m currently teaching a BA-level course called Communication Technologies and their Impacts. It provides an overview of the historical development of media and communication technologies (newspapers, radio, television, the internet) and covers a variety of impacts of communication technologies (think social, political, cultural and economic). But there’s one thing I keep struggling with: the textbook! The content is never quite right, and books often have a US or primarily Western perspective (problematic as I’m teaching a roomful of international students).

Recently I thought that if the perfect book doesn’t exist, perhaps I should write my own. Not feasible; not in the near future anyway. But then I discovered a better idea: this TEDTalk by Richard Baraniuk on open-source learning. In the talk (from way back in 2006) Baraniuk presents his work as the founder of Connexions, an “online knowledge repository where anyone can create lessons through open source authoring.” He advocates the building of a knowledge ecosystem: customized textbooks (including a variety of teaching materials) for customized courses (kindergarten through higher education).

As specified in this edutopia article, Baraniuk is quick to address critics and points to a number of positive points to his approach: First, authorship: authors’ names appear with their work; attribution is required whenever the free material is used or reused. Second, peer review: some authors first submit contributions to their respective professional organizations, who then review and endorse materials.

Although I haven’t found anything to solve my course problem, I’m greatly encouraged by this work. I would love to offer my students a highly-relevant, up-to-date, affordable textbook that includes all necessary materials, and also takes the international perspective that they crave. To succeed in the search, it’s time to look at content that has been made part of a knowledge ecosystem.

*a longer version of this blog post appears on my personal blog.