Fork, merge, share a course

This weekend I placed last semester’s New Media Culture course up at Github under a CC license; it includes the source files for the syllabus, my notes and slides. Like everything I’ve put up at Github, I’m not confident it will be of use to a lot of people, but I like to share, and I’m often pleasantly surprised. Coincidently, a recent link on /r/Python/ led me to a great talk by Greg Wilson on What We Actually Know About Software Development, and Why We Believe It’s True. While this talk is 2 years old, I also had a look at his blog. It just so happens that while I was sharing my class on github, Wilson was asking “would it be possible to create a ‘GitHub for education’”? Why does need one even ask this question? The answer is because:

because today’s learning content formats make merging hard. PowerPoint remains the tool (and format) most commonly used for individual lessons, but there aren’t good open tools to merge PowerPoint files. (Wilson 2011)

Indeed, PowerPoint is a binary file and no fun at all. However, most every text that I author is markdown or HTML/XML, which is then converted to some other format as needed. I’ve long maintained such files in version controlled repositories. For example, Good Faith Collaboration was written in markdown (and existed in CVS, subversion, and git as it went from dissertation to book). My class’s slides are authored in markdown and then converted to DZSlides via pandoc.

Hence, I think I’ve addressed the format concern — in a rather geeky way. Someone can easily fork my class, make changes to my slides, diffs of which I can easily view and merge back in. However, there are still some issues that would provide some friction to sharing:

  1. Each instructor’s take on a course like Media, Culture, and Society will be novel. I imagine my slides on a widely used text, like Jenkin’s Convergence Culture, might be of use to someone else, but I would not expect someone to adopt my course wholesale. (Perhaps this is less true for standard courses like Physics 101.)
  2. Furthermore, courses on the same topic and even using the same readings can still differ significantly depending on how many courses there are in the tri-/se-mester, how long the classes last, and how many students are in each class.
  3. My use of freemind for my syllabus is novel as far as I know. David Weinberger has been a big advocate of Syllabus XML wiki, and perhaps something will pan out there, but XML is not and easy format to fork and merge content in.
  4. The instructor’s ability to share course materials can be a confusing issue. I believe I have the right to share these materials, and have/will make some efforts to confirm this belief further, but I’d like to see more universities develop explicit open access and sharing policies.

Ported/Archived Responses

Greg Wilson on 2012-01-05

I think the key phrase is "most every text I author".  If your slides are primarily textual, then yes, Markdown or something similar works fine.  But you can't mix diagrams and text --- really mix them the way you would on a whiteboard (or in PowerPoint), not just put them side by side with a PNG or SVG here, and text there.  I think it's a tradeoff between ease of management and richness of presentation; I'd like to have both.

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