Connecting people through open content

In open educational resources and open access research, there is a strong emphasis about how they can support the exchange of content and understanding between people, with a focus on academic-to-academic, teacher-to-learner, and sometimes learner-to-learner. In this blog post I’d  like to unpack how OER and OA can help connect academics with the public and what implications that might have.

If, as a thought experiment, we were to take as our primary use case members of the public: how can we best support that?

Heath warning: I used an old fashioned method of flipchart and felt-tips, so I hope these are legible enough to get my point across. Also I have used the metaphor of an open content cloud to mean something nebulous with fuzzy edges. I don’t mean cloud as in cloud computing. Also I have a very weak definition of open: at a minimum I just mean freely available without authentication.

Let’s start with the basics …

1)      Academics contribute content (tweets, slides, papers, courses …) to the web. As well as being available to other academics, it is also on the open web so it is available to the public. It is also available to journalists to use in their reporting up to the public.

2)      Of course, the cloud of open content is huge, the range of journalistic media is huge: no individual can read it all. Which is why social media is so important to our filtering and selection of resources …

3)      … because it is social media that enables members of the public, journalists and academics to make connections between content items, for those connections to be visible to everyone else, and for people to be able to make rich networks of connections.

4)  So far so good. But for this to deepen and build over time, within topic areas, and within individuals, for provenance to be trusted,and  for this to become normalised as the way we use the web, we need to properly attribute and cite resources, to make this flow reliable and visible …

5) … and to do that we need to be able to clearly identify people and content

Hopefully this all looks familiar.

I think there might be some interesting implications for how we manage the digital infrastructure to underpin this public<>academic use case. Many of these implications are bubbling away in blog posts about OA and OER, so I think there is some value in articulating what these implications are.

  • Academics should, and many are, embracing the possibilities of contributing content to the web, beyond an audience of other academics
  • We need to understand what journalists need in order to use academic-created content. Data journalism, journalistic use of social media could be key to how academic-created content reaches the public. The rights that need to be granted to journalists to share, reuse and remix content need to be given, but in such a way that meets the motivations of the academic (often attribution)
  • We need to understand better how the public (i.e people) use the web and social media: digital literacy is important for academic content to get informed take-up from the public
  • Likewise rights that need to be granted to the public to share, reuse and remix content need to be given as appropriate. But they need to be simple, hence the value of sticking to some core licenses such as the Creative Commons suite even where better niche licenses might be available
  • So how much does open licensing matter? Perhaps it matters most in the academic<>academic exchange, next in the academic<>journalist exchange, and least of all in the academic<>public exchange.
  • However how much does attribution matter? A lot. Embeddable machine readable licenses are key to these chains of attribution because they offer the possibility of automatic attribution. (I am convinced this is very important, whilst I recognise it doesn’t work for big data, it is necessary for a lot of other use cases)
  • When we think about identifying people, we shouldn’t just think about identifying academics: journalists and the public matter too, and our systems of identifiers must work across domain boundaries; where do twitter and facebook and wordpress fit with this rich linkage?

Given that researchers should be thinking about public impact, and teaching academics are starting to think about open education, perhaps infrastructure providers and institutions should be weighting the academic-to-public use case more heavily?

Amber Thomas

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13 thoughts on “Connecting people through open content

  1. Doug Belshaw

    Interesting stuff, Amber.

    I read this from Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979) yesterday:

    “It is reasonable to suppose that the proliferation of information-processing machines is having, and will continue to have, as much of an effect on the circulation of learning as did advancements in human circulation (transportation systems) and later, in the circulation of sounds and visual images (the media).

    The nature of knowledge cannot survive unchanged within this context of general transformation. It can fit into the new channels, and become operational, only if learning is translated into quantities of information. We can predict that anything in the constituted body of knowledge that is not translatable in this way will be abandoned and that the direction of new research will be dictated by the possibility of its eventual results being translatable into computer language. The “producers” and users of knowledge must now, and will have to, possess the means of translating into these languages whatever they want to invent or learn. Research on translating machines is already well advanced. Along with the hegemony of computers comes a certain logic, and therefore a certain set of prescriptions determining which statements are accepted as “knowledge” statements.

    We may thus expect a thorough exteriorisation of knowledge with respect to the “knower” at whatever point he or she may occupy in the knowledge process. The old principle that the acquisition of knowledge is indissociable from the training (Bildung) of minds, or even of individuals, is becoming obsolete and will become ever more so. The relationships of the suppliers and users of knowledge to the knowledge they supply and use is now tending, and will increasingly tend, to assume the form already taken by the relationship of commodity producers and consumers to the commodities they produce and consume – that is, the form of value. Knowledge is and will be produced in order to be sold, it is and will be consumed in order to be valorised in a new production: in both cases, the goal is exchange.”

    OK, so he uses big words in a look-at-me-I’m-a-French-philosopher kind of way, but Lyotard’s point about the goal of knowledge moving to be a means rather than an end is important, I think. Joe Public doesn’t really care about a discovery or a research finding being interesting in-and-of-itself, he cares about what it means for things that are important in his life.

    But that’s the issue, isn’t it? How do you “measure” research impact in a qualitative way? It’s very easy to do so in a quantitative manner (through hits, invited speeches, etc.) but not at all easy to do so in a way that anyone actually cares about.

    So what’s my point? Insofar as I’ve got one, I suppose I see Open Content as being the oil that helps this machine keep working. Otherwise, given the disconnect between academia and the public (and distortions by mainstream media) I think the whole thing would fall over and die.

  2. Amber Thomas Post author

    Thanks Doug.

    Interested in your point about the disconnect between academia and the public. There seems to be a perception that opening up research to the public means dumbing it down, but I don’t think it needs to be that way. In this age of mass HE, a good proportion of the public are graduates: certainly some mass media is aimed specifically at graduates. So I think there are issues about communication specialisms into a broader public space, which the Lyotard quote points at. The value of niche content, the academic long tail, is part of the ecosystem not a separate system. I think.

  3. Eric Lease Morgan

    Very nice. Very. IMHO, you have outlined and illustrated one the largest potential opportunities for the (academic) library community. I sincerely hope more people read your posting, get inspired, and put some of your ideas into practice. –ELM

  4. Rachel Bruce

    And in haste just to point to the Science Wise work we funded in collaboration with BIS –
    This is a step towards trying to understand some of the infrastructure required for engement with the wider public. Just a quick quote from the project page …
    “In the science sector some initiatives are already under way. A number of higher education institution and civil society initiatives have attempted to open up datasets about science, particularly research outputs (models, technical datasets, publications and citations). These have aimed to increase collaboration between scientists and encourage re-use of research outputs. These initiatives also have the potential to encourage wider stakeholder engagement (public, other researchers, business, media) in use and contribution to science, and so lead to greater understanding of science by stakeholders, and accountability of science institutions. Thus such applications offer potential for improved citizen and societal engagement with emerging technologies and research, and also for the co-generation and co-analysis of data. Data-driven journalism provides a useful example of the goals of data impact, collaboration and re-use, with public accountability, understanding and trust .”

    As I say in haste, but just wanted to make the connection to this piece of work that I was really pleased we were able to be involved with, and I think this agenda is of course developing further with quite a few drivers.

  5. Amber Thomas Post author

    Thanks Eric and Rachel for comments so far

    I should have said that of course there are great examples from the UK of projects bridging between public and academic content, not least:

    The UK Open University’s long running partnership with the BBC

    The Oxford University Press

    Warwick University’s Knowledge Centre

    and there is a lot of promise in the Oxford Triton blog aggregation approach:

    AND its not all one way either, things like the projects from Zooniverse involve the public in academic projects

    … plenty more like that …

    what are your favourite academicpublic content examples?

  6. Alastair Dunning

    Hi Amber,

    Good post.

    Do you also need to think about curators and intermediaries as well?

    Sometimes academics are good at speaking to public; but often they are not, or do not have the time.

    And often journalists and the public can be overwhelmed by the amount of content and ideas on the web, even if high quality content.

    So is there a role for a new (or newish?) type of intermediary (digital curators, public engagement officers, public historians) here that helps forge the links between the people in your charts above?

    And maybe those intermediaries need to think about producing new forms of publication and dissemination that provide new ways of communicating beyond blogs, tweets, journal articles and monographs.

    Have a look at the Press Forward site in the US – “Bringing together the best scholarship from across the web, producing vital, open publications scholarly communities can gather around.”

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  8. Andy Lane


    You make some good points here but like Alistair I think we need to think of more than just the public and more than just journalists as intermediaries. We know that many different types of organisation are variously using OER from OpenLeran with their own employees or members and they act as the ‘filter’ to identify and present them to that interest group. So more than than one vast public we are looking at many different types of public group coming at the OER not just for information or interest but because it supports personal and professional workforce development.

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