I suppose that the 5 Rs are really a description of what is enabled simply by adding an appropriate license, so in this sense my proposed 6th R is really something entirely different if you like. It’s the layering of an entirely new idea on top of the original five that can help to dramatically accelerate the use and growth of the entire area by further disrupting the grasp of the professional publishing industry on the educational resources space. My idea was a bit of a trial balloon, but one which could certainly stand to be unpacked a bit.
Version control isn’t a requirement for the creator or even for those reusing the content. But, this being said, there is a massive value in being able to Re-aggregate (and maybe this is an even better and more concrete 6th R) all of the related content flowing off of each piece. This is how we move more easily from a few small paragraphs to full chapters and later entire books and from thence into full packages of available course ware. Version control allows the logging of the historical growth of a thing while still allowing the easy forking or branching (and even archiving) of that thing at the same time.
While the 5 Rs provide a solid base for potential future use, I think that using version control on top of the whole adds an order of magnitude of value in comparison to the modest amount of additional work. The engineer and mathematician in me sees the original 5 Rs as useful linear value creation tools while the version control part is an exponential value creation tool. Version control also adds an additional layer of potential cross-collaboration that we traditionally haven’t seen in the space before. While some version control tools can seem disorienting and un-intuitive, I think that those barriers to entry will be slowly coming down and will be much simpler to use in the near future. I also think that this is the value that Microsoft sees in GitHub, as they’ll most likely extend the functionality and accessibility of the tool to a much larger general market than the programmers which have typically used that product.
Obviously it would be nice if the creator(s) could be responsible for some of the aggregation, but certainly there’s no reason (and the open licenses certainly allow for it) that others couldn’t help out with doing the aggregation. Most of my point in proposing a sixth R is to help make sure the broader community is aware of the general idea, the available tools, and the potential value and possibilities in using them as we create the content. Awareness of the concept should be part of our collective electracy in any case.
Already there are some clearing house sites which broadly compile OER resources, but these will be even more valuable if we allow the aggregate changes to things to go back to the original in some way so that those using them in the future are more easily and readily aware of them. While the efforts in the area can and probably should be decentralized in nature, having some mechanism for centralizing the distributed work as well as knowing the history and provenance of materials can be tremendously valuable and useful.
Perhaps we look at it from a broader process perspective of Creation, Compilation, Curation, and Consumption? We’re already individually creating pieces and individually compiling them. Most of the heavy lifting for educators has been in the areas of compilation and curation and much of this expensive process has been picked up by the textbook publishing markets which then turns around and re-sells these pieces back to us at a massive markup. With open tools and capabilities made available to us via the internet, we can carefully disrupt the bigger space to fragment the work (many hands make light work) to make the entire process simpler and less expensive. Then teachers and students can have many more options available to them. If you were teaching a course and had easier access to a panoply of materials, then as a teacher you can pick and choose from a broader array of (less expensive) materials to best suit the needs of your students for consumption.
As a small example, what do you do with an exceptional student who is beyond some of the material when you start a course? Do you let them squander their time and energy by tying them to a text that will hold them back or do you suggest an alternate that will take their current skills and allow them to grow even more? What about the students that need more remedial help? Should they be tied to a standard text that has been targeted to the median of the market? With more options on the table, you can help them with more available remedial material or additional extra exercises to bring them up to speed with the rest of the group. To accomplish this as educators we need better workflows for the compilation and curation pieces of the puzzle.
Another thing to think about and be careful of is to look for the next surface that the for-profit sector is likely to shift into to retain their position as owners and/or gatekeepers of potential materials. I suspect that supporting version control will help push those eventualities even further down the road while simultaneously aggregating additional value exponentially more quickly to the open materials themselves.
I don’t think that those who are individually writing shorter pieces and licensing them as creative commons will necessarily pick up the mantle of version control. It’s more likely to be done at a broader departmental or institutional levels, or even more so from the level of departments at multiple institutions collaborating to make broadly accessible materials at the level of entire courses or even full curricula which pick up the smaller licensed pieces from individuals. And likely before this happens, it’s most likely to be individual creators working at the level of collaboratively creating books like that of Robin DeRosa’s recent effort in which a professor is creating material in conjunction with students. The top and bottom of the creation chains will meet in the middle, but it will require the broader coordination and collaboration that is made far simpler by the tools currently offered by the larger revision control systems.
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