Managing OERs: the problem of version control?

Proposal: those releasing OERs should not invest undue effort in attempting to maintain version control over copies of their material other than those they directly manage.

This post looks at one possible administrative or management concern or challenges emerging from the technical side of working with Open Educational Resources. My response to this concern is (more than usual) opinion rather than advice and hopes to provoke some debate.

There are plenty of reasons why version control of files is critical. These range from managing which version of a document you can safely delete to making sure you’re reading the right document or installing the most up to date patch. Good version control is a key part of content production, file management, and dissemination. Any repository, content management system or other tool – need to clearly distinguish between current and older versions. Older versions may or may not be maintained (whether publicly or privately). In itself this creates a question of what those releasing resources should link to. At its simplest version information about research papers is important to distinguish between pre-print and post-print. However, when papers are published that usually represents a final version of that paper (and not many repositories are [currently] likely to make public multiple versions of an article.

Educational resources on the other hand are usually considered less finished in that even once they are used for teaching year by year [in theory] they regularly evolve to reflect feedback, changes in course content, and developments in teaching style. These iterative versions may often blur into each over as in the lecturer’s mind they are the notes for topic ‘x’ rather than discrete intellectual works. Unless a course or class is completely restructured these assets are likely considered to be one entity [There is a case to be made that these materials are perhaps in need of more rigorous versioning]. For academics who’ve engaged with the idea of Open Education or simply appreciate the visibility it offers this may create a desire to update the materials they’ve released and replace them with new versions. Indeed, if they discover an error in their materials, or their thinking shifts they may be insistent on trying to manage the available copies of their work.

Local repositories or services managing OERs will doubtless develop their own policies and practices to support or address this concern and it makes sense to keep the available learning resources updated. The policies and practices will likely diverge over whether older versions of materials are kept and/or made available to the public. This process gets more interesting though when we consider what interaction projects have with other services which have copies of (rather than just link to) their resources – to what extent do you try to version secondary copies of your resources?

I think there are several factors that shape how OER producers should respond to this question:

  1. strictly speaking you have no legal right to request the removal or update of such resources. Once released under an open license the content is out of your control as long as the license is conformed to. [Note: I am not a lawyer but part of the entire point of most open licenses is that they are non-transactional and irrevocable].
  2. most services or individuals that have taken copies of your resources are likely to be very happy to take updated copies as well.
  3. although most notification or harvesting technologies or standards can support (in some form) the deletion, creation or updating of records [and this would potentially support pointing to a new version]; they deal with metadata rather than allowing remote file management [AFAIK] and even if they did support remote file management few people are going to enable such a feature.
  4. manually distributing updated copies is a possibility but is time intensive and also relies on the policy, procedure, and practice of the third party service.

Considering these factors, I don’t think under normal circumstances OER distributors should be concerned about how their materials are versioned once they leave their local service. This does imply that there may always be some degree of confusion but I’d suggest that on the web there is (even when concerted efforts are made to reduce it) and that responding to the confusion requires consumers of OERs to exercise the same information literacy skills that they need when interacting with any online resource.

This said I think there are steps OER producers can take to promote the visibility of their current resources: one such would be to include a purl or other appropriate uri which points to for the latest version in the resource and metadata where this is possible, whether as a cover page, a subtitle at the start of a video, or other such mechanism, there is a compelling case that resources should include information about where they’ve come from – not only to promote the latest versions but also to note the resource provider. I’ve talked previously about this idea of that resources should be self-descriptive. There may be limit cases in which there is a compelling case to try to remove every trace of a resource but these are unlikely to be common.

4 thoughts on “Managing OERs: the problem of version control?

  1. Pingback: OER Version Control «

  2. >>strictly speaking you have no legal right to request the removal or update of such resources. Once released under an open license the content is out of your control as long as the license is conformed to. [Note: I am not a lawyer but part of the entire point of most open licenses is that they are non-transactional and irrevocable]<<

    If this is the case, then OER projects should ONLY deposit the metadata records (including a persistent link to the learning object) to the JORUM OER. This will allow projects to implement a fast take down policy in the case of any copyright issue has been risen.

  3. Hi Ahmed,
    although Jorum is an obvious instance, in which this secondary version question, will arise for UKOER projects, I was deliberately generic as I think there is a wider question of control.

    In a nutshell, once you release materials under an open license you lose control. It doesn’t really matter where you put materials- even if you just keep them on your server – an open license empowers anyone to legally download, make their own copies available and rehost and you can’t demand that they be taken down. [unless you’ve got a very odd open license; For example, I don’t think even the more restrictive forms of CC (perhaps CC BY ND NC) would prevents making and hosting identical copies].

    My proposal is that once content is publicly available OER providers can’t control it so they shouldn’t waste effort or worry about trying to.

    The question of secondary hosts, such as Jorum, brings this into sharper focus. As I see it UKOER projects have an obligation to provide JORUM with copies of (or in some circumstances links to) their stuff. I don’t think the projects have an obligation to keep providing copies or try to update their stuff after they’ve given it to Jorum. I can imagine that Jorum and projects may decide on policies and procedures to version content, but that is independent of the programme and reliant on both parties having the willingness and resource to manage the process – and I have no idea what Jorum’s thoughts on this are.

    Edit: I don’t want to minimise the problems one would have if you released third party material, but I think once it’s openly licensed you’ve lost control – and, though there’s an element of risk involved, that’s actually a good thing

  4. Pingback: Weekly Research Index | December 18, 2009 « The Xplanation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>