30 March 2013

"Open", but no "source"....

While looking at open educational resources (OERs) for the OU MOOC H817, I am reminded of one of the big failures I identified in "open" materials right from the early days.

The Creative Common aimed to create something analogous to the open source movement in computing.  In open source, whenever you get an application, you are entitled to a copy of the "source code", that is the program in an editable manner, so that you can change its functionality easily.

The Creative Commons did very little to replicate this, with most items released on a Creative Commons license being released in their finished form only.  Yes, you can take material from a JPEG image or an MP3 file and reuse it, but the end result will be heavily degraded.

Just search YouTube for "best science experiments" or "best piano cats" or anything of the like, and you'll find a very blurry video made by editing a series of slightly blurry videos together -- at every stage, quality is lost.

Wikimedia Commons has made efforts to correct this, by encouraging people to post their images using the editable scalable vector graphics (.SVG) format.  This has been widely accepted among the Wikipedia community, as it has led to the production of high quality diagramming that can be readily translated, eg this rather beautiful map of the Scottish island of Islay, originally produced by an French-speaking amateur cartographer.

But the biggest stumbling block, as I see it, is video.

Filming is a complex, time-consuming activity that needs dedicated, trained personnel.  Editing is a complex, time-consuming activity that needs dedicated, trained personnel.

The Open University has the personnel and the resources, and they have released various video resources under a Creative Commons attribution - non-commercial - sharealike (CC-BY-NC-SA) license, explicitly giving users permission to adapt and remix the content, including creating translations into other languages... but how can you translate a video when the audio has already been mixed down?

Consider that you often have the "live" background sound from the scene (footsteps, wind, birdsong etc), and then a piece of music played over the top, and finally a disembodied voice speaking over the top of that (known as voiceover, or VO).  To make a decent translation of a video, you need these tracks separately, so that you can replace the VO alone, or to allow "ducking" of on-camera interviews without losing any continuing music (ducking is when you turn down the volume on one track to allow someone to speak over it, as used in most news and documentary programs when there is a foreign speaker on the screen).

But the Open University provides only a web-quality video with premixed sound, so I couldn't, for example, do a simple translation of their digital film school videos to Scottish Gaelic (something that would be quite useful to people interested in taking part in the annual short film competition FilmG).  I could ask, I suppose, but I don't even know if they would still have the source files.

Besides, one of the most overlooked senses of the word "open" is the idea of being "out in the open".  Materials are more useful if they're immediately available, so that someone can just get the notion to do something and do it.  If it takes a lot of effort, and there's no guarantee you're going to get what you really want, in the end, it's easier just to cobble together something for yourself, something that's unlikely to see any reuse....

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