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Monday, August 27, 2012

Does Esri Going OER with its Ed Materials Matter?

I was pleased to see Esri make a formal statement about its commitment to open licensing of educational (not training) materials developed by its Ed Team. The company is retaining copyright, but offering ways to use and recast the content via a Creative Commons license. (If that doesn’t make sense, I recommend this short video that helps explain how copyright and Creative Commons licensing work together.) The move didn’t surprise me since it’s something Esri Director of Education David DiBiase championed during his tenure at Penn State.

The announcement got me thinking about how and frankly if OER geography resources are being used and/or re-used. I can’t say for sure that any material from my two OER courses at Penn State has been explicitly used, but I’ve seen evidence that suggests it has.

DiBiase and his Penn State colleagues put together what I consider a quite comprehensive text book for the first course in Penn State’s GIS Certificate program. It’s called the Nature of Geographic Information and it’s been available under an open license for years. I went looking on the Web to see if any educators use it in their online or residence teaching. I found references from the University of Massachusetts and Princeton. I can’t say outside of the Penn State community I’ve ever spoken to an educator who used it. I know only a subset of educators seek existing OER resources or consider building their own. I still see online conversations among educators trying to identify the best textbook for GIS from the commercial publishers. I'm not sure I've seen a discussion that included OER materials.

What are the implications of Penn State and Esri’s efforts to open up their educational resources? The question is timely in part because Audrey Watters, the education writer, is just beginning a project to explore OER content. Her first post on topic appeared last week on her Hack Education blog. (She’s prolific and I confess that I keep up by listening to her weekly podcast.)

Watters shared her takeaways, after looking at the types of OER content available at OER Commons:
It isn't just that the topics skew STEM. It's the dearth of primary-level materials. It's the amount of test-prep (often AP-test-prep) content. It's the preponderance of PDFs. And even with somewhat clearer language regarding licensing ("no strings attached" and "read the fine print" as opposed to Creative Commons' terminology), the continuing confusion surrounding copyright affordances for classroom usage.
First I want to tackle the dearth of primary-leve materials. Esri’s Educational Advisory Board identified the opposite in its review of the companies ArcLessons. (Disclosure: I’m on that Board.) The consensus was more intermediate and advanced material was needed. I for one see intro GIS material popping up all over the place. The latest source to cross my desk: Step-by-Step from the Scholars Lab. (I do want to point out that these lessons are peer reviewed, something that is not true of all open lessons. They are also available under and open license.) Does the geospatial/GIS education community really need more tutorials about how to geocode spreadsheets? I’m not sure. If we do, is it because there are not enough OER materials? Or did the Scholars Lab lesson appear because educators wanted a peer reviewed resource? Or for some other reason?

Next, I want to consider the PDF issue Watters notes. Esri offers quite a lot of material in PDF, though that did not come up in the advisory board discussions, best I can recall. I do see complaints from those trying to use raw data presented in PDF to make maps and we in the media (I work for an online geospatial publication) complain about press releases delivered in this form. For those who don’t use PDF much or don’t think about its limitations: the format was designed to make documents look pretty across platforms, not make their contents usable. Use of PDF in my mind pretty much flies in the face of the OER re-use/re-mix vision.

Now back to my initial question: What are the implications of Penn State and Esri’s efforts to open up their educational resources for geography/GIS education? My gut says it’s a good idea and probably “the right thing to do.” Further, I expect virtually all educators would vote in favor of such licensing. I'm not sure how many would open up their own work to such licensing. But those observations beg the question: Do geography/GIS educators know about or currently use OER materials that are already available?

I return to the question because of a well-told story of a focus group some years ago discussing MP3 players. When asked if they’d prefer a pink one or a black one, nearly all the panelists said “pink.” At the door, on the way out after the session, was a table full of pink and black devices. Attendees were invited to take one home as part of their compensation. They all took black ones. (Note: My pink 2nd gen iPod shuffle is giving me the eye just now...)

I plan to return to this topic of OER geospatial/GIS materials in the coming days and weeks.