Creativity, serendipity and open content

I recently went along to an event organised by the Digital Humanities Network, Scotland at the University of Edinburgh, where Ben O’Steen, Bob Nicholson and Mahendra Mahey gave a series of fascinating presentations on the work of the British Library Labs. BL Labs is a Mellon funded initiative that supports creative experiments to visualise and explore the library’s digital collections and data through competitions and awards for innovative and transformative ideas that bring these digital collections to life. I’m not going to attempt to summarise the presentation, but I’ve put together a Storify of tweets from the event here: Exploring Digital Collections and Data in the Humanities

I’ve been a huge fan of BL Labs projects for a while now, particularly the wonderful Mechanical Curator, which provides undirected and unpredictable engagement with digital content by posting random small book illustrations from the library’s digital collections on an hourly basis. (You can learn more about the inner workings of the Mechanical Curator here: Peeking behind the curtain).

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Ships found by the Mechanical Curator

Bob Nicholson’s (@digivictorian) marvellous Victorian Meme Machine is another favourite. This highly creative and entertaining project uncovers forgotten Victorian jokes preserved “largely by accident” among the library’s digital collections and brings them back to life. Not to be outdone by the Mechanical Curator, the Victorian Meme Machine has recently launched the Mechanical Comedian, which tweets random Victorian jokes every lunchtime.

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The Mechanical Comedian

On the one hand these projects might appear frivolous and light-hearted but they are a compelling demonstration of what is possible when you bring creative thinkers together with innovative technology and open content.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the interface between openness, creativity, and content recently in the context of teaching and learning and I think there is a lot that open education could learn from the creative approaches to content discovery and reuse being explored by the BL Labs projects.

One of the things I love about open education in general, and open educational resources in particular, is the creative potential they offer to find, use, reuse, create and recreate such a wealth of diverse content and resources. However it appears that, in some quarters at least, open educational resources seem to be regarded as a rather restricted class of content that must be managed and used in a particular way. OER still seems to be rather tainted with some of the negative and rather questionable ideas associated with reusable learning objects. This makes me rather sad as, to my mind, this perception seems to be contrary to what open education should really be about and neglects the creative, fun, and serendipitous aspects of openness. That’s not to say that there aren’t some great examples of creative approaches to surfacing open education content out there. As well as presenting a simple search interface to open educational resources aggregated from a wide range of repositories worldwide, Solvonauts tweets #randomoer every hour.

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#randomoer from Solvonauts

And I also love OpenSpires simple interface to the University of Oxford’s eclectic collection of open content and resources.

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OpenSpires

I don’t quite know where I’m going with this post but I can’t help thinking that we need to encourage more creativity and serendipity in how we surface and engage with open education content.  More to follow perhaps…