The Student as Producer

We were recently unsuccessful in an application to JISC for a Learning and Teaching Innovation Grant. Nevertheless, the project is one that we’re keen on pursuing in some shape or form, so I thought I post the details here and invite comment.

We were asked to describe the project in three (albeit dense) sentences:

  1. Firstly, we intend to establish the extent to which the ‘Open Source’ model of collaboration is being used in UK Higher Education for non-software knowledge development projects, as we believe that a version of this proven method of collaboration can bridge the increasing gap between recent innovations and outcomes in Internet technology, such as pervasive online access and the growth of social networking and the realities of mainstream teaching and assessment methods, which are still largely hierarchically administered and restricted by institutional and non-institutional IPR regulations.
  2. A central concern and expected outcome of the project is the reformation of students from ‘consumers’ to ‘producers’ of research and learning materials, which will be tested and demonstrated through a proof-of-concept sub-project based at the University of Lincoln, in partnership with the Open Knowledge Foundation.
  3. Finally, based on this work the project will develop a ‘Toolkit’ for universities, containing a briefing paper on the use of the Open Source collaborative model in HE, an FAQ covering the pros and cons of this model, a template IPR policy document, a discussion of pedagogical tools appropriate to the model, and finally a set of training materials on using this method and associated tools for distribution to academic staff.

The background to this is my long-held interest in free/open source software, in particular the ‘free licenses‘ such as the GPL, which subvert commonly held notions of ‘intellectual property’ and impact on the process by which people work together. Happily, this interest ties in nicely with the work Mike Neary has been doing on the ‘Student as Producer’. I’ve recently written a forthcoming book chapter with Mike, entitled ‘The Student as Producer: reinventing the student experience in higher education’. It concludes by arguing that the ‘Free Culture‘ movement offers a model of production, vitally underpinned by Copyleft and similar licenses, by which the organising principles of knowledge creation, could be reinvented, repositioning the student as an academic collaborator and valued producer of knowledge rather than predominantly a consumer.

The application went on to discuss the issues which the proposed project would try to address:

In recent years, there has been an increasing conceptualisation of students as consumers which has rendered them passive recipients of knowledge, reducing the value of the University to little more than a training establishment. The issue then, is to reform the organising principle within HE, so that students are understood as ‘producers’ of knowledge and academic collaborators, to reinvigorate the processes by which Universities are seen as sites that openly contribute to the general intellectual well-being of society (Neary & Winn: forthcoming 2008).

The conversion of the student to consumer has occurred during the last 25 years at the same time as the term ‘Intellectual Property’ came into general use. Through changes in law, Universities have increasingly asserted IPR as a way of controlling and commercialising their research output. Indeed, it has been argued that there is now a “systematic conversion of intellectual activity into intellectual capital and, hence, intellectual property” (Noble: 1998). In contrast and in parallel to this, there has been the emergence of a successful alternative to the processes and application of traditional IPR in the form of the ‘open source’ model of collaborative working, by which loosely distributed people volunteer to produce computer source code and related documentation which is licensed under legal terms with the explicit intention of guaranteeing the dissemination of their work to the widest audience as possible and encouraging the modification and re-distribution of the original work for commercial or non-commercial purposes. A multi-billion pound global software industry is now exploiting these working practices and using the licenses to enforce the free distribution of ‘intellectual property’.

The types of ‘open license’ which support and guarantee this software development process are clearly being adopted for other forms of creative and collaborative exercises, most often in the form of Creative Commons licenses. A search for Creative Commons licensed material under the domain, reveals 110,000 results. In addition, the RoMEO project showed that from a survey of 542 academics, the desired method of licensing their research was under Creative Commons terms. Although there is growing interest within Universities to distribute teaching and learning output under these terms, this project will seek to understand how deeply and consciously the licensing process is affecting the process of academic production (i.e. research methodology, pedagogy) and where the open source method of collaboration is being adopted for non-software projects in HE, what are the generic success factors and can a successful interdisciplinary model be demonstrated to reform students as consumers of knowledge into valued producers, as already demonstrated in software development.

What I hope is clear is that we believe there is sufficient activity present within HE to indicate that individual academics are already using Creative Commons and similar licenses to underpin the distribution of their work. What we’re interested in is not the adoption of Creative Commons licenses per se, but how the ‘Free Culture‘ movement, to refer to it generally, is impacting the actual processes of research, teaching and learning, and what effect is, or could, that have on the identity and practices of the contemporary student. In addition, there is the wider question of when academics (see RoMEO reference above) and academic institutions (see Google reference above) choose to adopt a Creative Commons license, is there a full understanding of the individual and institutional IPR implications? I am pretty sure that, at times, there is a clash of institutional and individual interests with academics applying a CC license to their work which their institution/employer theoretically holds the copyright for. (Notably, Richard Stallman understood this and quit working at MIT).

The ‘Open Source’ model broadly has the following characteristics (Coffin: 2006):

  • open and widespread membership based upon participation
  • geographically distributed, asynchronous, networked collaboration
  • project transparency, particularly open, recorded dialog and peer review of project materials,
  • discussion and decisions
  • a compelling foundational artifact to organize participation and build upon
  • collaborative, iteratively clarified, living documents and project artifacts
  • a mechanism for institutional history
  • a community–wide sense of project ownership
  • a hybrid political system based upon meritocracy
  • a trusted benevolent dictator, typically the project founder
  • foundational developers and early adopters who, along with the benevolent dictator, set project ethos
  • consensus as a decision–making tool
  • upholding the right to fork.

Coffin’s article is just one of several attempts to identify the generic factors of open source software development. Our proposal to JISC was to examine these attempts in more detail, survey existing and past projects in UK HE which have demonstrated an implicit awareness or explicit declaration of using such a model and identify whether and how a similar model can be applied in an inter-disciplinary way across the UK HE sector. Essentially, we’re suggesting a new angle of the constructivist pedagogy based on a reformation of the understanding and application of IPR within a networked HE environment so that students assume the position of collaborators in a distributed community that is inclusive, based on a meritocracy, permanently open to peer-review, and offers students incentives to engage in the production of a mass intellectuality, or ‘knowledge commons’, that is not the ‘intellectual property’ of individuals or institutions.

Our application then goes onto to state how we’ll address the above issues:

Our initial research will examine evidence that suggests the model for open source software development was a natural outcome of long-established academic research processes. We will attempt to offer both historical and contemporary examples of how there are shared core values and established working processes among both open source software developers and academics in general. We will then survey current examples of the open source model of software development being transferred to other academic disciplines and seek to identify generic success factors that can be applied to a small proof-of-concept student-centred research project. The project aims to test and demonstrate how the successful methodology of open source can be applied to other forms of academic endeavour and revitalise the original, Humboldtian position of the student as a producer of knowledge rather than a passive consumer of information. Finally, based on the outcome of the above, the project will create a Toolkit for University policy-makers Educational Development Units and researchers who wish to examine the organisational, legal and economic issues, risks and benefits of this form of collaborative working and licensing of institutional intellectual property, which is increasingly commonplace in HE although perhaps not fully understood.

Clearly the proof-of-concept sub-project was going to be challenging within the time-constraints of the project but we have a couple of ways of stimulating this in the form of our Undergraduate Research Opportunity Scheme (UROS) and NEO, a planned journal of student research papers. As the above text mentions, we also proposed that we’d work in partnership with the Open Knowledge Foundation, who are already doing a lot to promote ‘open knowledge’, have valuale experience we could learn from and have good contacts and some existing projects that could be adopted for this purpose.

It was an application for an ‘innovation grant’ and we think it is innovative because…

It provides evidence of and tests fundamental changes to the model in which technology, learning objects, research and indeed most of the intellectual outputs of the University are developed and distributed. It attempts to offer a new model of innovation for the contemporary University, that is both research and student-centric.

JISC replied with three fair comments. The first said there was too much overlap with their Web2Rights resource. I’m not so sure about this. Our proposal was more interested in the processes of knowledge production, the way people organise themselves and the licenses which define their work.  There’s some overlap, but not a great deal.  Secondly, they noted that our proposal was heavy on background information but light on what will be done and how.  I absolutely agree. We just didn’t have enough time to pull people together from around the university and from other universities, to get a clear idea of how we’d test our ideas. There is interest both in Lincoln and other universities we approached, but nothing concrete yet. Lastly, JISC rightly pointed out that our assumptions about the open source software model being transferred to smaller, non-developer communities, did not accord with their experiences.  This though, is the challenge.  Having been part of that community for several years now, I am certain that other forms of knowledge production could benefit from adopting a similar model. It requires a change of culture and changes in the way academics and students relate to each other and to their work, but this is the point if we want to change the student from consumer to producer.

Comment, criticism and offers of collabroation are very welcome.