Joi Ito: Education is at the core of Creative Commons

In April Joi Ito became the new executive director of the MIT Media Lab. However, he is best known for his work as the chairman of Creative Commons and, shortly before he stepped down from the post, JISC Inform caught up with him to get his take on openness in education.

Who is Joi Ito?

Joi Ito was named by Business Week as one of the 25 Most Influential People on the Web in 2008. He is an entrepreneur, founding companies including PSINet Japan, Digital Garage and Infoseek Japan, and a venture capitalist (he was an early stage investor in companies including Kickstarter, Twitter, Six Apart, Technorati, Flickr, SocialText, Dopplr, and Last.FM). He is currently executive director at MIT Media Lab, following his role as chairman of Creative Commons. Joi is based in the United Arab Emirates.


What is Creative Commons?

creative commons

Creative Commons is a non-profit organisation that develops, supports, and stewards legal and technical infrastructure that maximises digital creativity, sharing, and innovation. It is best known for its licences – tools which allow anyone a simple, standardised way to grant copyright permissions to their creative work.

What is JISC doing?

With the power of open educational resources also comes the responsibility of ensuring that intellectual property rights and use licences are correct.

JISC’s two online IPR wizards show how to navigate through the licence compatibility issues which arise when blending Creative Commons licensed resources into open educational resources. These guides have been created by Web2Rights, JISC Legal and Creative Commons. They ease the process of identifying which licences to use for a completed open education resource through to considering if previously licensed materials, once integrated in the open educational resource, are still valid.

Access wizards.

OER and student satisfaction

The Open University, the UK’s largest university, is committed to open educational resources, sharing its teaching and research with a global audience through partnerships with the BBC and iTunes. The OU is also consistently ranked one of the top two universities for student satisfaction in the National Student Survey. In 2009, it came top, with 94% of students saying they were satisfied overall with the quality of their course.

JISC is currently investigating the attitudes of students and staff towards using open educational resources.

Find out more here and here.

What part do you think Creative Commons plays in enabling openness and innovation in teaching, learning and research?

We’re a key part of the network that is transforming education – a catalyst that takes away the elements of legal friction that can otherwise gum up the ability of innovators to remake textbooks, coursepacks, syllabi, and other educational materials into something that’s more fit for the network.

I live in Dubai, so I’m obviously thinking a lot about the Middle East, and there’s a good example there of how we help. In the old system, there’s a pile of textbooks mouldering away in a warehouse, printed last December, that don’t talk about the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, or Libya. If those books are online, then they can be updated – but only by their authors.

If those books are online and under an open license, like some of the Creative Commons licences, then anyone can update them. That’s what happens when you put together the content, the stakeholders such as teachers and students, the entrepreneurs making new businesses out of open education, and a suite of standardised legal tools like ours. We can form a network for education that is more efficient, faster, and more responsive to the reality of the world.

How disruptive will open innovation be to education? What are the global implications?

I’d say it’s going to be very disruptive. We’re moving from a world where an introductory textbook costs several hundred dollars and weighs several kilos to one where that same book can be treated as a scaffold, built entirely from free content for a few thousand dollars in curation costs, distributed around the world instantly at zero additional cost, translated, and mashed up into a local context without additional permission. Globally, there are a lot of smart people out there who could not participate in the old systems, and the digital commons lets them in.

With universities in an increasingly competitive market, how would you address the fears of university heads that they are ‘giving away’ their content if they open it up and make it CC-licensed?

I’d turn it around. Do you go to college for the content? Or for the experience? For the community? For the participation? I think universities that focus on the experience, the community, and the participatory culture are going to thrive in the new economy. It’s not about ‘giving things away’ as much as it is about making the external world capable of adding to the local experience. Open innovation, in its own academic sense, is about adding internal value through external innovation. That’s the point. Being afraid of giving things away makes it very hard to see that point, however.

But once a few universities begin to develop working organisational and pedagogical models that run on open systems, you’ll see rapid copying of those models by other universities, and rapid incremental innovation on those models themselves. That’s just part and parcel of how innovation happens. We’re still waiting for those breakthrough models, but they’re not far away.

How high is the cost of failure for universities and colleges in this area?

That’s a hard question to answer because we don’t necessarily know what failure means. Is it failing to adapt to the internet? Because bookstores failed to adapt, and Amazon took over (of course, now they’re a shipping company and a data company, which is its own interesting innovation story). Is it about university presses, which face their own challenges? Or is it about recruiting students who expect to be part of their own education and not passive consumers?

Creative Commons licences make open educational resources easily available but not necessarily easily discoverable...What work is Creative Commons doing to make it easier for people to search for and find these resources?

From the beginning we’ve focused on making CC licensed works findable. We provide ‘machine readable’ versions of our licences that can be found through Google searches or through our friends at domain-specific locations like Flickr for photos, so you can restrict your findings to only works you have permission to work with. But it’s especially complex in educational materials, so we’re working on our technical infrastructure to show how it might work.

Probably the most relevant piece of our current development is ‘Describing OER’, our name for a project to gain adoption of a common vocabulary for describing educational materials from leading OER publishers, institutions, and communities. This will make it possible to build search and other discovery tools that leverage OER-specific qualities.

TEDx Dubai 2009 - Joi Ito.

How can enterprise/businesses be part of the ecosystem around open educational materials? Can free and for-profit organisations happily share the same space?

This is a hard question, because we haven’t seen the ecosystem fully formed yet. It’s like asking in the early days of the web what e-commerce would look like. We can make some hypotheticals though. It seems that service models work well with open content – the professor who coined the ‘open innovation’ term has a new book out on the role of service business models. And it seems that there’s some implicit work to be done around the educational ‘graph’ – so you could imagine a non profit repository of CC licensed works being dragged into a student’s version of a textbook on an iPad, alongside content from a paid publisher, and there being some revenue opportunities for all involved.

How can OER learners get formal accreditation for their work? Is an OER University the way forward?

Accreditation is a big question in this space. It’s similar to figuring out citation and credit in our science work – we’ve had these old, analog systems for a long time, and they work at least moderately well, and there’s not an obvious digital version to hop to. I’d expect that we’ll see a flowering of various attempts to make accreditation work and that the market will sort itself out. Someone’s going to crack this nut, and when they do, the answer will appear obvious in hindsight. But for today it’s cloudy.

With Cathy Casserly, describing by you as ‘the godmother of the Open Educational Resources movement’, taking over as CEO of Creative Commons, do you see a new emphasis on open education initiatives in the organisation?

We’ve had a big emphasis on open education for years, going back to when we launched the ccLearn project in 2007. We have changed the way we talk about the project – we don’t use the separate brand anymore, because education is at our core, not just a ‘vertical’ or another brand we propagate. So we’ll definitely continue to maintain that emphasis, and we’ll be working to support and extend the way CC gets used in education - but I’m not sure that’s ‘new’!

What, for you, are the most exciting developments currently going on with open innovation in education?

The $2B federal Department of Labor funds requiring CC BY.


Random House’s investment in Flat World Knowledge.

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A useful set of blog posts, resources and links on open educational resources.