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learning tomorrow

Friday, May 27th, 2011

Or why I think that open educational resources matter to everyone.

Education is in ferment. A slew of books talk up a ‘crisis’ in the university, specifically universities in the United States. A sample of typical titles includes; Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University and Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities .

But which crisis? There seem to be a number of factors bearing on the current model of higher education. Each factor has distinct origins, and each has been causing change in education, especially higher education in the developed world, on different time scales. It seems better to speak about a number of crises.

These are:
* the funding crisis,
* the crisis in the humanities and the related identity crisis of universities,
* a pedagogical crisis
* demographic shifts,
* global competition,
* the impact of information and communications technologies.

In this post I am going to speak about just one aspect of the last item listed, it is questionable whether this is a crisis so much as an opportunity.

It is simple but momentous; as soon as learning material such as a textbook is reproduced digitally and loaded onto an Internet server it is available to everyone in the world who can access the Internet, at no more cost than accessing the Internet.(1)

This will affect almost every educational institution and almost every educational practice. Since we don’t know entirely how it will affect institutions and practices let me go ahead and make myself guilty of understatement and say that it’s going to be huge.

Any description of this change has to sit uncomfortably between late 90’s technology hype and understatement. That there isn’t quite the language to talk about shows how little we (and I guess that by we I mean most of human society) still haven’t fully understood the potential of this phenomenon that we take for granted, that we call the Internet.

In the midst of growing anxiety about the rising costs of education one competent of education could be free: learning materials. That should mean that education would be cheaper and more widely available than ever.

If learning materials can be free why aren’t they?

Learning materials are subject to copyright. Copyright applies automatically as soon as an original intellectual creation is recorded in a tangible format. Remember that in lawyerspeak ‘tangible’ includes information represented as a series of 1’s and 0’s recorded as electronic charges on a distant server. That means that reproducing learning materials, except under exceptions such as fair use, is prohibited by law. The creator of leaning materials must make the effort of an affirmative legal act to allow others to share learning materials. Until open licenses became widely available there was no way for a creator to share her work without hiring a lawyer.

The default rule of copyright forbids copying. The default rules of copyright are applied to all kinds of disparate phenomena, such as punk rock, computer programs and sex education materials (the rules are also applied to epi-phenomena such as songs sung by Britney Spears).

The theory behind the default setting of copyright is that these things require time and effort (which economists and lawyers think can approximate money) to make. The law gives a (theoretically) temporary monopoly to the maker to compensate him or her for the time and effort of making it. It’s obviously a crude scheme, the Pulitzer Prize winner gets the same exclusivity and terms as the writer of advertising copy.

But most learning materials are either subsidized by government, such as school textbooks in South Africa and most of the United States, or purchased by students subsidized by government through student loans. Most are written by people whose salaries are paid directly or indirectly with tax money. Since tax money pays for the creation of these resources anyway then the most efficient use of them would be to let them be freely available, for copying and remixing.

(1) Whether you think that’s momentous or mundane one inescapable consequence is that anyone who doesn’t have access to the Internet doesn’t get to participate. Someone from a wealthy culture may think that there is no-one who doesn’t have Internet access, or least, no-one important. But as an African I am acutely conscious that the vast majority of Africans do not have Internet access, and that for those that do it’s inadequate. But it’s not as if there are any good off-line alternatives. Its not as if Africans generally already have functioning off-line systems that provide plentiful, customizable high quality learning materials or in too many cases any learning materials. I’ve never heard of a viable proposal for providing plentiful, high quality, customizable learning materials offline. If anyone has heard of one please tell us about it in a comment.