I’ve been participating in a pretty interesting (I think) thread at Jeff Rice’s Weblog about new literacies and I wanted to pull some of the thoughts over here for some further thinking. (If you surf over there, read the comments from the bottom up.) One phrase he uses does a good job of naming this blog and wiki produced writing: “open text.” He defines it as texts created “within a network which writers and readers tap into, alter, appropriate, confiscate, download, share, etc.”
An open text is much different than what print creates – closed, authorial creation. The bigger picture would be to imagine an academic setting in which students don’t produce closed, authorial (name on your paper/do your own work) writings, but something more open and networked (and by extension, the classroom, too, would take this form).
Kind of goes to the mix, rip and burn culture that Lawrence Lessig talks about. And it also goes to the heart of where my own murky thinking about all of this is…it really is the collaboration, stupid. Aside from the digital paper part of it, which is important, collaboration IS the big idea here. It is what is truly different about Weblogs and wikis. And I’m really starting to believe that these technologies are the first(?) step down the road to completely changing how we think about reading, writing and producing products in general. Jeff says:
For example, if one has students work with weblogs only so that they can post their homework, why use the weblog? Same with a wiki. If students are just posting essays, we don’t need a wiki? But if students are doing something with the wiki that they couldn’t do without it – like creating highly networked and interconnected texts, with each other, other courses, other schools – then it seems like we’re starting to work with new media differently, right? That also is going to mean that the ways information is created and transfered will shift as well…so that what we used to ask for (literacy) no longer applies as is.
The opening up of the text is what is new. To use a written text as an example, right now, our students print the “final” copy, at which point, you can put a fork in it. It’s done. And despite the fact that we’re big on collaborative learning, that’s always been, for me at least, a very nebulous undertaking. In writing, it usually just means offering corrections or primarily insignificant suggestions on content. Rarely have I seen students significantly interact with someone else’s text, and I think part of the reason is they don’t own it and that the effects of that interaction have little or no audience or lasting purpose beyond the classroom walls.
But now, all of a sudden we have online, “open” texts. Texts that are not finished, per se, but are continually (perhaps) evolving from the interaction of others. Texts that can reach a wide audience. Texts that everyone can own. Texts that can have a real purpose for being created. This is a significant shift.
The big question here is, obviously, whether or not the collaborative construction of content will be the norm in the future. And if so, in what ways are we going to have to rethink what it means to be literate? It can’t be just reading and writing any longer. It has to include editing, publishing and managing of texts as well. And real collaboration skills. It incorporates all if not more of what we’re doing in this community: blogs, wikis, RSS, aggregators, online information managers.
Luckily, I’ve got a couple of nights under the stars coming up to think more about this.
Wow! Great post and that really is an interesting thread going on over at Jeff’s Blog. The barrier in our society to truly becoming collaborative is, unfortunately, our own human natures and the idea of capitalism as a whole. To make collaboration work, we have to be selfless enough to accept that collaborating may cost us time, money, or whatever, and we may not agree 100% with the final project. For example, I’m amazed at how wonderfully open source programming is working and I’m surprised how much effort programmers are donating to this cause. Where will it go, though? Will open source programs ever overtake commercial programs? I doubt it because we can only donate so much time and energy to programming for free before we have to make our daily bread. It might be the same with open text (I do like that term a lot). It’s a good idea, but will this new literacy overtake traditional literacy? Only if we can be selfless enough to make the collaboration work, and I don’t think we are.
However, enough pessimism. Even if the new literacy never overtakes traditional literacy, as teachers I think it is good to promote open text styles of writing and to teach the value of collaboration at the level of granularity where it really does become impossible to say which part was yours and which part is mine. But getting grade-driven students to buy into this idea is tricky. I’d appreciate any ideas on how to do that!
Tom Hoffman says
I think what you are losing track of is the complexity of coordination and cooperation in a truly ‘open text.’ Weblogs are successful because we get just enough collaboration with almost no coordination. You may decide to leave comments open, but otherwise, your page is your own and nobody else can mess with it. Wikis are immensely more difficult and complicated if your goal is to truly create an open ended collaborative work. Wikipedia is an outlier because encyclopedias have such a modular and regimented structure.
“Will open source programs ever overtake commercial programs? I doubt it because we can only donate so much time and energy to programming for free before we have to make our daily bread.”
Well, there’s an assumption there that is incorrect, that open source is all about working for free. That’s not true. Many programs work on open source projects for a variety of reasons, some of which are financial, just not with the direct, high paying, financial return a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs would be looking for. It’s much closer to why people teach. Why do people teach for the income they receive? 😉
Steven Weber, in The Succes of Open Source, lists a number of motivations why open source developers write open source code:
*Art and beauty
*Job as vocation
*The joint enemy
*Identity and belief systems
Sounds like teaching 🙂
But the main point I wanted to make was that if you want to make collaboration work, then the first step is moving toward a truly “open text,” one that recognizes what “openness” is, through copyleft/open source licensing. Copyright, to reference Weber again, is about the “right to exclude.” Open source, the “right to distribute,” and I would add, about the right to create and collaborate. It is within a free culture, to reference Lessig again as Will did, that collaboration really happens because we begin to deny ownership of our texts, and instead value contribution to community more, and within that free culture, creativity through reworking of texts and working together is invited, rather than a taboo where one must seek or have permission to work or use the “author’s” text. This is why weblogs and wikis are indeed creating more “open texts” (although, I don’t like that term because it is a bastardization of open source principles), because they exist within a community discourse which is highly connected (not the other way around) and many of the participants are those that seek a free culture.
And minimal CreativeCommons licenses which only allow copies aren’t enough. To believe utterly in collaboration is to enable collaboration completely by allowing derivative works. To do otherwise, is to assert authorial control, to end up with texts that are partially closed, where potential collaborators must ask to work with the text. This is why wikis are much more open content (better term than open text), because they invite the same level of collaboration that open source development does. The writer must surrender some/all authorial control in order to participate in a wiki. . . .
Hope that made sense 🙂
“Wikis are immensely more difficult and complicated if your goal is to truly create an open ended collaborative work. Wikipedia is an outlier because encyclopedias have such a modular and regimented structure”
The feature I think I like with Wiki though is the idea that, if someone reads a page and has a question / doesn’t know something, they can easily create a new page linked to this word, and hope someone will come along and fill it in!
I think Wikis need a form of community discipline or culture – when do you alter, when do you add – however the exploration of multiple views rather than “the owner of the document rules” could be fun.