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Re: [Osdc-edu-authors] First draft: remixing Euclid
- From: Mary Bitter <mbitter redhat com>
- To: Greg DeKoenigsberg <greg dekoenigsberg gmail com>
- Cc: OSDC Education authors <osdc-edu-authors redhat com>
- Subject: Re: [Osdc-edu-authors] First draft: remixing Euclid
- Date: Mon, 22 Nov 2010 14:45:13 -0500
Pretty cool article, Greg! I know you are still tweaking and others are
reviewing but we will get a graphic underway.
Greg DeKoenigsberg wrote:
OK, I've been working on this way too long, and I need some eyes.
Mostly, I just need to walk away from it for a little while. Patches
* * *
As we struggle towards a world of remixable educational content, one
of the oft-expressed fears is that the remixers will ruin otherwise
brilliant work. Is this a reasonable fear? What would Euclid say?
When we talk about geometry, the vast majority of us are actually
talking about what mathematicians now call, more precisely, <a
geometry</a>. And why do they call it Euclidean geometry? Probably
because the Greek mathematician Euclid laid out its foundations in a
manuscript about 2400 years ago, and mathematicians have been mostly
nodding their heads in agreement ever since.
Euclid's Elements made its way from Alexandria to Athens, to Rome, to
Baghdad, back to Europe, and around the globe. In days gone by, one
could not be considered properly educated without having studied
Euclid. Until the 20th Century, Elements was the second most printed
book in the world, ahead of Shakespeare and behind only the Bible. It
is said that country lawyer Abe Lincoln carried a copy from town to
town so that he could study its proofs by candlelight. Einstein
called it "the holy little geometry book".
Our understanding of many academic topics continue to evolve -- in
some cases slowly, in some cases rapidly. Euclidean geometry is not
one of these topics.
It's no exaggeration to say that the compasses and straightedges we
used in our geometry classes in school were functionally identical to
those used by the Greeks, with construction techniques described in
Euclid's proofs, more than two millenia ago. Every illustration from
every elementary geometry textbook can be reasonably considered a
direct derivative of Euclid's work.
Sounds like the very epitome of public domain, doesn't it?
Which is what makes it so fascinating that a Google search for
"Euclid's Elements" yields, for its first three hits, links to <a
E. Joyce's interpretation of Euclid's Elements</a> -- which have a
prominent notice assigning copyright to Professor Joyce, and his
employer Clark University, on every single page.
* * *
Copyright by Default and What it Means
We live in a world of copyright. In countries that are members of the
Convention</a> (which is almost all of them), it's no longer necessary
even to claim copyright; copyright is simply assumed, and creators of
works must make a conscious effort if they wish to put those works
into any kind of commons. Which means there's no sense in blaming
Professor Joyce. When he first put his site on the internet in 1997,
Creative Commons did not yet exist, and the copyleft debate was in its
infancy even as it pertained to code.
It's a funny thing about the public domain: anybody can take any work
in the public domain, remix it to their heart's content, and release
it as their own, and they magically become copyright holders of that
new work -- even if it were orginally 99.9% someone else's work.
Absolutely legal. Want to take a Jane Austen novel and turn it into
zombie thriller</a>? Knock yourself out. Want to <a
Tolstoy into steampunk</a>? No problem.
It therefore makes perfect sense that there should be tons of
proprietary derivatives of Euclid's work. It's the oldest textbook in
the world, it's a complete and essentially perfect encapsulation of
its subject matter, and it's completely free to be pilfered. What's
not to like? There's every incentive to take things from the public
domain, and zero incentive to put anything back. Which explains, in
part, why it's surprisingly difficult to find a useful version of
Elements in the public domain.
There's the Joyce version, which is comprehensive and extremely well
annotated; to modern readers, succinct definitions like "a line is
breadthless length" can certainly benefit from a bit of exposition,
and Joyce does that well. Trouble is, it's all under a <a
strict license</a>, which means that creating and distributing
derivative works without consent would be forbidden. There's also the
text from the Perseus Digital Library at Tufts</a>, which provides the
entire text of the Sir Thomas Heath translation, including commentary,
in HTML and XML, with extensive internal hyperlinks. Also great, but
lacking in useful illustrations, and made available through a somewhat
restrictive Creative Commons license with a non-commercial clause.
The versions that are truly public domain are scanned PDFs of various
editions, of varying quality, and not easily consumable by most
would-be Euclidean disciples.
And then there are the thousands of elementary geometry textbooks out
there, all of which are, by very definition, derivative works of
Euclid -- and are sold at a much higher price point than "free on the
internet". What about those? How much money do taxpayers spend to
purchase endless derivative works based on a public domain text that
was the gold standard of scholarship for more than 2000 years?
* * *
Why Give Back?
It's true that there are improvements to be made on Euclid's Elements:
in style, if not in substance. It's true that different kids learn
differently, and that different teachers teach differently -- and
there may well be room for dozens of geometry textbooks, all geared
towards particular learning styles and needs.
But that's not what happens in our schools. Districts choose one
text, and hand that text to every student. It's no one's fault;
that's how our schools evolved. Our educational system comes from the
industrial revolution, and at that time the factory school was the
only conceivable mechanism for achieving quality education at scale.
That's not true anymore. More and more people are starting to
question the viability of the educational model of the industrial
revolution -- LINK TO RSA VIDEO-- and as the educational ecosystem
expands into the digital world, new potential contributors are joining
the ecosystem. It's not just professional educators, either: small
education startups, homeschooling parents, passionate bystanders, and
even motivated self-learners are all potential creators of educational
content. The more we can do to keep that ecosystem open, and the
lower the barriers for new entrants to add to the ecosystem, the more
innovation we'll see.
Open Ecosystems = More Innovation
The ecosystem of open source software exploded once it reached a
critical mass. Suddenly, it was no longer necessary to figure out
legal terms to get access to code, and it was no longer necessary to
be a "professional"; anyone with an idea and some basic computer skill
could find a good base of code, grab it, and start running. And
because that commons was designed from the beginning to expand,
software innovation based on open source software continues to
Getting to that critical mass of open educational resources continues
to be a challenge. The resources must be good enough to be useful,
and open enough to be extensible. There are lots of efforts to build
those resources from scratch, but building quality educational
materials from scratch is not easy. Actually, it's really, really hard.
Which is why it's important to take copious advantage of every good
resource that does exist. Euclid wrote the definitive geometry
textbook for us, 2500 years ago. That's hard. Now, writing a
That's easy, at least by comparison -- something that a clever hacker
parent could do in a weekend. And if a hundred clever parents get
together, ol' Euclid takes on new life. And of those parents decide
to put that code goes into the commons, it stays there -- for good.
Since Professor Joyce has made such a good start, maybe someone should
send him a nice email and ask him if he'll give his work to the world,
just as Euclid did before him. Someone really needs to replace those
outdated Java applets, and I can't imagine he'd turn down the help.
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