Making books to build communities, building communities to make books.

news OER philosophy

Brewster Kahle, of the Internet Archive, gave a talk back in 2004 titled, “Universal Access to All Human Knowledge,” arguing that new web technologies could help realize a world in which all knowledge would be available to anyone for free. Brewster’s vision was a core inspiration for the past decade and a half of my professional life. It prompted me to create LibriVox and later Pressbooks, and now inspires the work we are doing with the Rebus Community, part of a global movement of educators and creators who are making free, web-accessible, open educational resources.

While universal access to all human knowledge is perhaps beyond Rebus’s scope, we’ve long stated our mission as:

“Helping to create open textbooks for every course, in every language, in the world.”

Which is still idealistic enough, we hope!

Since we first got going in 2016, the Rebus Community has been working with a limited number of projects to develop a scalable approach to publishing open textbooks and OER. We want it to be one that any individual, institution, or network of institutions should be able to use, adapt, and build on.

As we’ve developed this approach, we’ve focused on three things: process, tools, and people. In the coming year, Rebus will be focusing increasingly on that last part: people.

Books and Communities

We’ve spent a lot of time here at Rebus talking about how our particular approach to OER creation is different from other publishing models. During one of these discussions, a team member spontaneously wrote this up on our office whiteboard:

Build books to to build communities
build communities to build books.

It really struck at the core of what we believe a vibrant future for OER looks like, and (after a couple of word changes), it’s now guiding the ways we want to keep fostering the growth of both content creation and sustainable communities of content creators and users.

The Web and OER

The power of the web (for better or worse!) might be distilled into two fundamental characteristics:

  1. the ability to transmit and receive information instantaneously and cheaply
  2. the ability to gather and harness communities (loosely joined ones like Facebook friends with shared cultural interests, and tightly joined ones like work colleagues collaborating on a project)

The promise of OER is in the ways we can leverage two of its particulars to build these two types of communities.

First, because OER is open, it can tightly join together a community, that is, those collaborating on a given open textbook project (for instance proofreaders, reviewers, content contributors, and others who help to spread the word).

And second, because OER is free, it can also loosely join people together, that is, teachers who want to offer free/open content to their students, as well as the students themselves and librarians and other advocates who might help an OER project be successful.

OER and Community

Although OER is inherently open, an OER community does not (necessarily) mean “anyone can write content for this project.”

But it does mean finding ways to bring more and more people into the publishing process. It means developing and demonstrating light and easy ways to engage faculty from a particular discipline to cheerlead for the creation of a particular book, and then to be enthusiastic adopters when it is released. It means helping willing authors find projects they can contribute to, and helping those projects find willing authors. It means getting people excited enough to spend some time as reviewers, proofreaders, adopters and beta testers of OER content, and perhaps as many other things, such as recorders of audio versions. It means thinking of ways in which reviews, tweets, and a central space for conversations about a project can contribute to growing a vibrant community around OER.

Building Community, Rebus-style

While OER is growing in reach, we are still in the earliest days. We’re trying to create OER for every subject in every language, after all. To get there, we need to think of new strategies, platforms, and approaches to building communities around creation, publishing, and maintenance of content. For this to work, we need to develop sustained energy around and within OER publishing, the kind in which the connections between the makers and users of OER are both tight and loose, as well as self-reinforcing.

Developing this type of sustained energy is ‘hard’ in the sense that just putting free content into the world isn’t enough; but it is ‘easy’ in the sense that there is a growing enthusiasm for OER—because of cost reduction, the support to innovation in teaching and learning, and increased accessibility to education overall. That enthusiasm is evident in the OER projects we’ve worked with to date.

In the long term, we want to make sure that the power inherent to OER communities—and the care expressed by those communities—is woven right into the fabric of Rebus’s approach to publishing. As we embark on this new chapter, we hope you’ll join us as a member of a global community of communities, working towards a sustainable ecosystem of OER creation.

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