Last month I attended the Open Education Conference, also known as OpenEd, in Anaheim, California. OpenEd has grown into a marque conference that celebrates and pushes forward the development, use, and research of open educational resources (or OER), and appears increasingly interested in other aspects of open education, such as open educational practice and the relationship of openness to equity. I attended in my capacity as a 2017-18 OER Research Fellow given my current research into educators’ open learning via collaborative web annotation.

As I discussed my research with other OER advocates and scholars, I had one particularly interesting interaction with an influential OpenEd community member. Our conversation – for the sake of brevity and clarity – can be summarized like this:

Him: Remi, your research should study how people annotate OER.

Me: My research studies annotation as OER.

I’ve been thinking about what distinguishes our respective framings of OER and OER research. Here’s my read on his suggestion: First, web annotation is interesting. Second, web annotation is a promising means for mediating online textual analysis and conversation. And third, educator participation in collaborative web annotation can be really interesting and even more promising if it happens atop OER. In short, mark up OER. From his perspective, it’s the content – the freely-available, reusable, remixable, and shareable OER – that serves as the foundation for whatever then happens with web annotation. And if educators learn via collaborative web annotation, that’s likely (or largely?) because it was the OER, in the first place, that anchored their activity.

My research, however, approaches the production and resultant media of open web annotation as OER. A piece of OER content does not necessarily need to anchor web annotation. From news reports to scholarship, blog posts to datasets – wherever collaborative web annotation occurs – it is a given text that becomes a context for creating an interactive layer of information. It is this bricolage layer of information – information comprised of various types of content (i.e. written comments, embedded images and video, links) – that can function openly and across contexts as OER. That’s the distinction I care to discern, and that I’d like to discuss via some basic definitional work and then with an example from my research. Here goes.

Annotation Layers as OER

According to Creative Commons, OER are “free and openly licensed educational materials that can be used for teaching, learning, research, and other purposes.” Commonly accepted definitions of OER have also been advanced by the Hewlett Foundation (“high-quality… materials that are free for people everywhere to use and repurpose”) and by Lumen (based upon the “5R” model of legal permissions to retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute open content). Among these definitions, and for many who design, disseminate, and adopt such content, OER are also typically signified by the Creative Commons license CC BY.

And what about web annotation as OER?

First, it’s important that I qualify the type of web annotation I’m discussing (and that I use in my research), for there is a long history of annotation on the web (a history that can be traced back to Mosaic, the first browser), there are various annotation platforms, and web annotation is routinely woven into journalism, scientific research, scholarly publishing, and education.

My research has benefitted from an active collaboration with Hypothesis, a non-profit organization building an open conversation layer atop the web. I’ve written elsewhere about all the wonderful reasons why I have partnered with the organization and how I have learned from their staff. As but one example, Hypothesis Director of Education Jeremy Dean and I have co-authored the forthcoming article “Web annotation as conversation and interruption” (in press) for the Journal of Media Practice.

Through my collaborations with Hypothesis, I’ve developed a far more nuanced appreciation for the qualities of open that define both the organization and their platform, and that make – in my assessment – their approach to open web annotation relevant to OER. Here’s a partial list:

  • Hypothesis is an open-source technology, which means the code running Hypothesis is open and free for others to use, remix, and repurpose according to their needs and goals.
  • Hypothesis has advocated for and helped to establish annotation as a web standard, affording technical specifications for interoperability across different annotation clients and services.
  • Public annotations authored using Hypothesis are attributed with a Creative Commons license. Here’s detail from the Hypothesis Terms of Service:

You agree to freely dedicate your public contributions to the public domain or, where that is not possible because of law, to freely dedicate your publications using the Creative Commons CC0 Public Domain Dedication… The CC0 Public Domain Dedication allows free copying, modification, distribution and performance of your contributions, even for commercial purposes, all without asking permission. We note that Creative Commons has provided additional public domain guidelines that we strongly support. Most importantly, that if you use contributed content that you give credit and attribution, provide a link to the original source, protect the reputation of authors, contribute discoveries back, and generally share knowledge in an open way.

How do these varied definitions and interpretations of open clarify my stance toward Hypothesis web annotation as OER? Most importantly, public annotations authored using Hypothesis are attributed with Creative Commons permissions similar to those associated with the 5R model of OER. These annotations, as part of the public domain, can be reused, revised, remixed, and redistributed, all while the original author of the annotation retains credit for their intellectual property. As for expressly educational content, because public Hypothesis annotations are openly licensed and publicly accessible, this content – whether individual annotations or those that are part of a collective layer – can be easily adopted and adapted by educators, instructional designers, and researchers as (or into) educational materials suitable for teaching, learning, and scholarship.

Are all public Hypothesis annotations OER? No, they’re not. But under certain circumstances they can be used, amplified, and extended as OER. When web annotation activities afforded by Hypothesis are incorporated into either formal education activities or interest-driven learning, the creation of public annotation layers are OER. Close reading of a poem, political commentary about a speech, analysis of a organizational report – whether these layers of information are authored by a single expert or co-authored by students in a course, these new, dynamically composed, and often multimodal collections of content are OER. And that, for me, distinguishes annotating OER from annotation as OER.

An Example of Annotation Layers as OER

I’ll wrap up this post with a brief example from my research. I currently help to organize and study an effort called the Marginal Syllabus. Started during the 2016-17 academic school year, the Marginal Syllabus convenes and sustains conversations with educators about issues of equity in teaching, learning, and education. We do so via Hypothesis web annotation. As such, the Marginal Syllabus embraces an intentional political and technical double entendre; we partner with authors whose writing may be considered marginal – or contrary – to dominant education norms, and our online conversations with authors and text-participants occur in the margins of online texts using web annotation. Our collaborative and emergent attempt to create a new sociotechnical genre of open educator learning has led to expanded author, publisher, and organizational partnerships. Most notably, the National Writing Project is currently hosting the 2017-18 Marginal Syllabus. Our theme this year is Writing Our Civic Futures; you can view the entire syllabus here or join this month’s conversation about civic interrogation and innovation.

In the context of this post about open web annotation as OER, I’ll reference the nine text-based conversations that comprise the 2016-17 Marginal Syllabus. Last year, we convened and have now curated nine conversations about a range of topics, from information accessibility and digital redlining, to research writing, curriculum co-design, and critical literacy pedagogy. Yes, each Marginal Syllabus conversation is associated with a partner author’s original content. And yes, in some cases we’ve had to work closely with authors and their publishers to make original content openly accessible and annotatable. Yet whether or not the source material was conceived of and designed as OER, it’s the Marginal Syllabus’ creation of a freely available, openly accessible, and dynamic conversation layer that makes all the difference. Each conversation – as a co-authored annotation layer atop a partner author’s text – is an OER. And here’s why:

  • Each of the nine Marginal Syllabus conversations are part of the public domain; as a collection of public Hypothesis annotations, all are attributed with CC BY licenses.
  • Marginal Syllabus conversations can be reused across contexts – incorporated into a workshop about web annotation, referenced during professional development germane to a given topic or disciplinary practice, or analyzed as open data in a research study (that’s what I do!).
  • Marginal Syllabus conversations can be revised – both individual annotations and the entire layer can be modified to support formal and interest-driven learning. Revision also includes the addition of new contributions; educators, in this respect, are invited to add their original annotations to ongoing conversations that get stretched across time.
  • Marginal Syllabus conversations can also be remixed. And redistributed, or shared, among social networks and across technical platforms. And all the while, every Marginal Syllabus participant – the educators and others who author annotations – retain credit for the intellectual property that they contribute.

By convening conversations about educational equity, the Marginal Syllabus attempts to model and grow a new form of educator learning mediated by open and collaborative web annotation. And by publicly curating conversations that were produced using Hypothesis, Marginal Syllabus conversation layers are OER. The layer is the resource.

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