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CHEC - What is the Commons?

David Topps's picture
Well CHEC mates, what about all this sharin’ lark I keep hearin’ about? Wot’s in it for me, I say? Arrrr…treasures to be shared about… We’ve all called for greater sharing of our efforts and expertise over the years. The idea of sharing, contributing to the Greater Good, increasing the Commons Wealth, makes obvious sense. The devil has been in the details of how to do it. Apart from a few oft cited but rarely emulated examples, there is little profit but much effort and expenditure in electronic learning resources. Proprietary efforts mostly struggle to gain market share. Most learning practitioners would prefer to explore and try new avenues. We should be looking for leveraged try-outs, not leveraged buy-outs. Historically, the Commons was a central, usually grass covered area, with communal grazing – a place for discourse, a place for strolling with friends and family. This was where you got your daily news, shared gossip and tips and sorted out problems. Nobody owned the Commons – all had the right of free access to it. What is the Commons today? More importantly, what is it not? It is not just another web page. Web sites struggle to stay fresh and current, all content being filtered through the Web Master. It is not just a portal – a single gateway to the whole web, a single launching point, a single point of view. It is not just a repository – a hole that you stick things into, a communal dumping ground for stuff that you hope somebody might look at some day. It is not just a blog – weblogs provide an easy mechanism to chat and share newsy stories, but tend towards high entropy, serendipitous rather than synergistic efforts. The Commons can include all of these elements and more, bringing them together, using each approach or tool as appropriate, and most importantly allowing the Commoners to stroll, graze and chat as their needs and fancies direct. Key to all of this is the issues of Intellectual Property. The Commons should not be an all-you-can-eat buffet, loaded with cheap rice, paper and froth. IP matters but with proper respect and collaborative controls, IP gains in value, even while remaining freely shareable. It is essential to remember that Open Source offers free (as in Nelson Mandela, not as in beer) stuff. A more apropos analogy that was recently offered was “free as in puppy” – it might not cost much to buy but you have to tend it carefully, love and nurture it, or else it will pee all over the rug. So, as mentioned at the start, how the heck do we promote all this free love, sharing, hippy stuff anyway? There are many schemes that support openly shared materials. Creative Commons ( is the most well known but many others abound. CC’s excellent web site does a great job of explaining how this works, and more importantly, how it can be enforced if necessary. What makes it most attractive is the simplicity and ease of use. You can apply Creative Commons licensing to your content in less than five minutes, and all for (yes, you guessed it)…free! Many other tools now effectively support collaborative learning and teaching practice. Any or all of them can be included into our Commons. As new tools appear, they too can be introduced to the Commoners, to thrive when successful, to fallow when weak. Although email has to date been the most common practice for sharing group information and material, our inboxes are now overflowing with spam and large attachments. Spare a thought for those poor souls who are on the road and trying to deal with email over dialup. Shared folders, a common sight (site?) on most local networks now, can also be provided securely yet simply over the web. Just like the folders on your desktop, it is simple to create hierarchies and links that support how your data functions. They are a great waypoint for dropping off megamail attachments – those digital images from the office party in nauseatingly high resolution and with nauseatingly large attendant file sizes. But this still leaves us with coarsely granular materials that are difficult to link, merge and work on together. So, who’s on first? And what is the latest version? I don’t know but Abbott and Costello would have a field day with our current practices in maintaining version controls. There are typically two semi-automated approaches to keeping a common copy of all the changes. One is to provide some sort of check-out/check-in system so that only one copy of the document is out in the wild being edited at any one time. The more recent approach is to allow some sort of direct online editing – the simplest version of this is the wiki. Wikis were originally designed to open up the Web Master bottleneck – if you want people to actively contribute, hand over the reins. Many wikis are wide open, an approach that some fear leads to complete anarchy. Most wikis do actually have some simple but remarkably effective built-in tools that help to prevent existing pages from being vandalized or corrupted. Some more recent approaches now provide for simultaneous real-time editing. This has been crudely available for some time in the form of collaborative software whiteboards. Microsoft OneNote and Google Docs have taken this a stage further. Multiple users can now simultaneously edit different parts of the same document, each user viewing and working with completely different sections of the document – they don’t all have to be on one common screen in the old whiteboard manner. Sophisticated record locking mechanisms help to prevent users from inadvertently overwriting each others’ valuable contributions. This does bring up the question as to when to use a wiki and when to use Shared Documents. Typically, the wiki provides advantages when there are lots of links, simpler text editing, need for access from simple web browsers, and easy rollback or undo. Use the Shared Documents approach when you have more complex documents, a need for Tracked Changes, (searchable) hide-able Comments, and greater formatting control. So get out there, get your feet (or nib) wet, and write something. If you’re nervous about wrecking something, try the Sandbox first – you can’t break anything there.