Meera Nair

Posts Tagged ‘OER’

now what?

In Posts on July 1, 2017 at 9:00 pm

The Day is done; candles have been blown out in some quarters, tears continue to be shed in others. 150 years of something–whether it is the lifetime of Canada or a chapter in millennia of a First Nation–has been duly marked/celebrated/decried. Now what?

In terms of copyright, we can expect continued calls for stronger copyright to better support Canadian writers. Ignored will be the detail of copyright deficit–that more control invariably means more Canadian dollars going to non-Canadian entities. Also omitted will be any hint that such calls have been in existence for the entirety of Canadian autonomy with respect to copyright, with no appreciable denting of that deficit to show for it. That copyright alone cannot be the salvation of Canadian culture (assuming that our culture is under threat) will also be absent from discussion.

Perhaps we could set aside copyright for a moment and think about that word: culture. Described by Raymond Williams as one of the most complicated words in the English language, it spans the entirety of our collective lived experiences.

Through the past 150 years, Canada has only too often demonstrated narrow-minded thought. Beginning with an unapologetic objective to rid the country of indigenous people,* followed by the Chinese Head Tax, the Komagata Maru, the internment of Japanese Canadians, the rejection of Jewish refugees, … . The situation for visible minorities improved somewhat in the later 20th century, with racism taking on a slightly more polite tone. (Although, children of colour attending school in the ’70s will likely have evidence to the contrary.) And it is difficult to forget the national indifference to the tragedy of Air India Flight 182 in 1985.

Yet Canada has developed a credible capacity, not merely to mouth the importance of protecting minority rights, but to actively encourage the virtue of diversity. The underlying theme for the last 30 years or so is that we are all in this together and we all do better together. Some pride is warranted; it has been possible to find unity without imposing uniformity. But can this be sustained, or is the best of Canada behind us?

Paula Simons, writing for the Edmonton Journal, reminds us not to rest on our laurels. That systemic racism is still part of our landscape, and extremism is on the rise: “for all our lauded tolerance, this was also the year when six peaceable Canadians, at prayer in a Sainte-Foy neighbourhood mosque, were shot in the back and killed in the midst of their devotions.”

With an eye to building on the effort of our prior angels, to what extent are we aware of our collective history? Is that history within reach of all Canadians? In this regard, copyright cannot be ignored. Two proposals come to  mind; one is already underway, the other I offer as an idea.

1) For years, Amanda Wakaruk (copyright librarian for University of Alberta) has publicized the challenges inherent to maintaining accurate information about Canada as a whole, due to the archaic practice of Crown copyright. In her capacity as a private citizen, she has introduced a petition Fix Crown Copyright:

Decades of stakeholder requests to abolish or at least update the Crown copyright provision in the Copyright Act have been largely ignored. This has resulted in a barrier to the re-use of government publications prepared for and paid for by Canadian taxpayers. For example, the refusal of government departments to allow for the copying of content made freely available on their web sites, and then deleted from those same sites, resulted in the loss of countless digital government works in recent years. (Note that very few government publications continue to be produced in paper.)

Removing copyright protection from government works made available to the public will allow individuals, corporations, and other organizations to make better use of these important resources. It will also allow librarians to continue their role as stewards of government information in a digital world. …

The petition will remain open until 23 September 2017.

2) Volumes of scholarship about Canada are, for the most part, confined to the university community. Painstaking explorations that uncover the past, both its pain and glory, are not easily available to the Canadian reader who wishes to learn more.

For instance, I recently sought two books published by University of Toronto Press: (i) The Man from Halifax: Sir John Thompson, Prime Minister (1985) by P.B. Waite; and (ii) Essays on the Constitution: Aspects of Canadian law and politics (1977) by Frank R. Scott. Both are rich in their contribution to understanding the past, both could be staple reading for anyone interested in the idea and existence of Canada. But neither can be easily purchased (the odd copy may exist in a few select used-bookstores) and both have limited visibility in university libraries.

We cannot fault any publisher for letting production lapse when there is no market. And yet these are quintessentially Canadian books; written by Canadians, issued by a Canadian press, and intended without embarrassment as expressly for Canadian readers. Which raises the question: when such books are no longer actively produced or peddled for sale, can they not be made widely and freely available via an open license?

A requirement of an academic appointment is to engage in scholarly effort; to that end, scholars enjoy publicly funded salaries and research grants. With respect to publication, university presses are eligible for support from the Canada Book Fund. University libraries then pour more money into the purchase of information resources; data collected for 29 university libraries show aggregate spending in 2014-2015 as $305,046,488 (see page 4 here). Between government provision of public money, and university spending thereof, could some funds be set aside to convert old printed books into ebooks?

This does not require a change to the system of copyright–it requires consent from copyright owners of existing content, and, cooperation from institutions  If consent is given, and if institutions would share the necessary costs of labour and money, more Canadian content could reach more Canadian readers.

Copyright maximalists constantly tell us that Canadian culture is near death–that Canadian themed content will cease to be written unless copyright is strengthened. They neglect to point out how much existing Canadian content cannot be read at all.

* Roberta Jamieson, featured on CBC Ideas for 30 June 2017, pulled no punches in her telling of the past 150 years. And yet, offers much optimism for the road ahead.

wrapping copyright in the maple leaf

In Posts on April 24, 2016 at 7:21 am

On Friday, The Globe and Mail published “Kids will suffer if Canada’s copyright legislation doesn’t change” by Kate Taylor. I usually enjoy reading Taylor’s work; her capacity to grasp the heart of an issue by delving into underlying facts is often impressive. Unfortunately, on this occasion, her exploration is incomplete and emotion is presented as analysis.

While amendment of the Copyright Act is a year away, there should be no doubt that lobbying has begun. As per the time-honoured script, the essential step is to wrap copyright in the maple leaf. The very fabric of Canada is under assault, and only strengthening copyright can save us all. The script makes for good drama, but is short on evidence.

Taylor, like John Degen last month and Heather Menzies earlier this year, places the challenges of Canada’s educational publishing industry at the feet of the 2012 statutory expansion of fair dealing. (Such a selective invocation of Canadian copyright-related history conveniently omits any mention of the role played by Access Copyright in bringing about the decline of collective licensing.) The claim that reduced revenue from textbook sales is due to unauthorized copying is not new. But when put to the Supreme Court, after consideration of all the facts, a majority of the judges felt that the conclusion did not logically follow:

Access Copyright pointed out that textbook sales had shrunk over 30 percent in 20 years.  … [but] there was no evidence that this decline was linked to photocopying done by teachers … several other factors [are] likely to have contributed to the decline in sales, such as the adoption of semester teaching, a decrease in registrations, the longer lifespan of textbooks, increased use of the Internet and other electronic tools, and more resource-based learning (para. 33).

But the rising use of Internet-based materials does not placate those who have taken it upon themselves to protect our children. Taylor writes: “ … teachers increasingly turn to free online materials, using fewer Canadian sources in the classroom and fewer materials directly tied to the provincial curriculum. [Advocates] are concerned there is no quality control of free material.” It is entirely plausible that the causality runs the other way: teachers are finding quality materials online, materials which also happen to be free. (The Khan Academy comes to mind.) But in the hands of those opposing any dilution of the traditional publishing industry, “free” and “online” are invoked with a dismissive air at best, or a pejorative connotation at worst.

Setting aside the prospects for alternative publishing models (for now), let us assume that Taylor’s, Degen’s and Menzies’ analyses are correct.  Let us assume that all the ills of the educational publishing sector are solely the fault of fair dealing. What then? Have any of them considered that years of expanding the scope of copyright has only meant that even more Canadian dollars flow out of the country than stay in? Since before Confederation, the market north of the 49th parallel has been dominated by foreign copyright holders. First British, then American. Copyright is a blunt instrument; any discussion of remedy via copyright should not ignore the trade imbalance. Applying copyright with broad brushstrokes through blanket licensing means fewer Canadian dollars are left to focus exclusively on Canadian creators.

Copyright governs much more than educational publishing, but even if it was confined to educational publishing, an important question has been left unanswered: Do Canadian sources make up the majority of all materials in all subjects taught in primary, secondary and tertiary education in Canada? If the answer is Yes, please provide evidence. If the answer is No, it is astounding that in the name of Canada, taxpayers, students and families are being chivied to provide more of our hard-earned dollars to predominantly benefit non-Canadian entities.

The effort spent railing about fair dealing could be better spent seeking measures that will target support directly to Canadian creators. Given the renewed spirit of federal-municipal relations, why not lobby for dedicated funding for school boards to support creation of open-education resources (OER) specifically to fill the need for Canadian content? Canadian history, geography, and politics could be addressed by local writers and illustrators, in collaboration with teachers, librarians, and archivists. How about seeking some manner of matched funds, to encourage every municipality to sponsor a writer-in-residence? What about expanding the existing Public Lending Right program to address nonfiction educational materials? A little imagination could bring about surprising dividends.

A Made-In-Canada approach to education is not a new concept. Law professor Myra Tawfik describes early 19th century efforts in Lower Canada to secure appropriate learning materials for children:

Lower Canadian teachers began to write or compile their own teaching manuals and schoolbooks. Preferring these to British or American imports and wanting to print multiple copies for use in their schools, they quickly discovered that the cost of printing their manuscripts was well beyond their means. Consequently, they began to petition the House of Assembly asking that it either assume the cost of printing or grant a sum of money to defray the costs (p.81).

Notably, when the House of Assembly delivered the requested support, it came with conditions regarding price and distribution.

As Canada approaches its 150th birthday, with a nod to the spirit that prompted the Massey Commission, the creation of the Canada Arts Council, and the emphasis upon Canadian Studies’ programs, it is time to focus on Canadian creators in a meaningful way.

 

students, food insecurity, OER

In Posts on August 31, 2015 at 7:25 pm

My last post focused on a very one-sided report bemoaning the fortunes (or lack thereof) of the educational publishing industry. That industry apparently needs our support in the form of continued high-priced payments. This, without regard for either developments in law or legitimate and innovative efforts on the part of the educational community to lighten the financial burden imposed on students, parents and taxpayers.

According to the report, without such an industry, our authors would no longer be able to support themselves. The trope of the starving author is a familiar one in the realm of copyright lobbying. Every expansion of copyright (beginning with its establishment in the 18th century) has included references to writers who needed copyright protection to survive. (Yet even in those days, not every writer agreed with publishers’ pronouncements on this matter.) If authors are still struggling after 300 years of relentless expansion of copyright’s ambit, perhaps copyright is neither the problem nor the solution.

Moreover, there is another segment of society where money is tight, or tighter still, and food insecurity is real. (Dietitians of Canada indicate that the main cause of food insecurity is poverty.) Year after year, the difficulties facing post-secondary students are covered in the press. Here is just a small sample of recent discussion:

Many factors play into student poverty, but the rising cost of education cannot be ignored as the principal driver. With tuition and housing as necessities, food is seen as optional. Citing Michael Waglay (coordinator for Beyond Campus Foodbanks) Rachel Grant writes: “the first campus food banks appeared in 1991 at the University of Alberta. Now, … there is a food bank on almost every campus.”

Also appearing on every campus are shelves upon shelves of very expensive textbooks. The educational publishing industry would have us believe that only they can produce such works. Open Education Resources (OER) demonstrates otherwise. Looking for an illustrative example that would have widespread use, I examined materials for pre-calculus. OpenStax’s contribution stands out, based as it is upon a thorough development and review process. A comprehensive book (1400+ pages), it is lucid in delivery and robust in its treatment of the subject. (To ensure a knowledgeable opinion, I placed it in front of my first guide in mathematics; a woman of 35 years’ post-secondary mathematics teaching experience, spanning two countries. Full disclosure – she is also my mother.)

OpenStax College is an initiative of Rice University, with the support of many philanthropic organizations. Its goal is to offer high-quality textbooks which are free online or low-cost in print form. The array of institutions who have adopted OpenStax books is impressive, ranging from high schools and community colleges to exclusive preparatory schools and Ivy League universities.

Returning to my pursuit for pre-calculus learning materials, an informal survey of conventional offerings showed sticker prices beginning at the $150 mark and escalating quickly. With the option to reduce that cost to zero, or near zero, that saving alone could make a meaningful difference to a hungry student.

But there are barriers to the adoption of OER materials. It is not a trivial undertaking to rework an existing course to rely upon a different textbook. Students can only hope that sympathetic professors will consider such exertion worthwhile. Traditional teaching/research institutions could support both parties by recognizing such work as “service” (that component of duties essential to advancement of tenured and tenure-track alike). Yet another barrier is awareness; too many of the professoriate remain unaware that such works even exist. Finally, advanced courses or highly specialized areas are less likely to be served by OER at this time.

But barriers to some are opportunities for others. Institutions which support OER usage, or, better still, invest in OER development, can enjoy a competitive advantage among the student market. A success story that made the rounds of Creative Commons’ enthusiasts is that of Tidewater Community College (Virginia) which shifted an entire program of study to OER materials. Mike Palmedo recounted the early details in March 2014:

 Tidewater identified 21 courses and signed up faculty members to design the curriculum. They started with the desired outcomes for each of the courses, and then built the curriculum with OER materials that would meet those outcomes. Developing the curriculum took about 12 months. One year into the program, the early results are highly positive.

The initiative was not only about eliminating the prior price tag of $3679 for materials, it was also about improving teaching impact. Continuing the story, via an Inside Higher Education webinar this year, Cable Green (Director of Global Learning, Creative Commons) gave additional good news: better grades, higher rates of completion and increased student enrollment.

Closer to home, the Justice Institute of British Columbia (JIBC) is showing great leadership in the development of OER materials for their students, and is enjoying the attendant institutional benefits. Details were first presented at Open Education 2014 in Washington DC by Tannis Morgan, Associate Dean for the Centre of Teaching, Learning and Innovation at JIBC. Morgan emphasizes that not only is this effort “the right thing to do” but also that “being open has actually increased the bottom line.”