Educators and Free Open Courseware: A Conversation About Who’s Really on Board

Think the verdict is in on open education? Hardly. The rosy-glassed optimists have had their say, to be sure; but there are two sides to every story. Two academics? Gene Roche, a tech advocate, and labor defender Rob Weir debate some of today’s open courseware issues.

Roche heads up the Academic Information Services department at The College of William & Mary and contributes to its Academic Technology blog. He’s also a Clinical Associate Professor in the School of Education, where he teaches on edutech and adult learning. Weir has written four books on labor in America, in addition to teaching history at Smith College and writing the “Instant Mentor” column for Inside Higher Ed.

In recent years, libraries have faced tough times, with limited budgets and even more limited community participation. Many have closed or scaled back their hours of operation and the number of staff. In the meantime, for the first time e-books outsold print books in the first quarter of 2012. Digital print offers a way for anyone, anywhere to access information. The problem is, such files are harder and more expensive for vendors to license and someone will have to bear those costs.

Question: In the absence of public libraries, should colleges and universities assume the burden of making at least some educational material freely available to lifelong learners through their libraries to fill the void?

Weir: “I’m for this idea, but with qualifications. One of the (many) problems facing the brave new world of publishing is one of protecting the rights of authors. It’s clear that the rules governing the world of print are outmoded, but a discussion is needed “” especially in the humanities, whose studies have a longer ‘shelf’ life “” about how long an author can retain control over distribution for royalty considerations. This needs to be more substantial than a publisher merely offering a one-time fee (which is generally pathetically low) for redistribution rights.

“I understand that old-style books were often illegally copied and redistributed, but this was logistically much harder than simply scanning and/or exchanging e-texts. Redistribution in new formats is a battle that the music and film industries have fought; publishing needs a similar campaign. Although I sympathize with budget concerns of small libraries, I am also mindful of the years of labor that can go into a book or article. Authors ought at the very least to have some say as to whether they wish to give away their work.”

Roche: “Academic libraries should be (and many are) as open to lifelong learners as they can be given their missions. Most can’t make their commercial databases and resources available to the community without huge costs that not even the richest universities could afford. But, many libraries are working with their faculties to dramatically expand local repositories that have extremely rich and high quality resources that are open to the world.

“My own sense is that those of us who relish learning should be out in front of our government offices with pitchforks and torches fighting to save the community libraries (or at least with picket signs), many of which are busier than ever, even if they are checking out fewer print books. If we let short-sighted politicians destroy the libraries, we’ll be a much poorer society for it.”

Before the charges were dropped following his suicide, Aaron Swartz was accused of stealing 4.8 million documents from for-pay educational document database JSTOR, whose self-proclaimed mission is “to provide affordable access to scholarly content to anyone who needs it.” Even though he had legitimate access to the service at MIT as a visiting Harvard grad student, Swartz allegedly broke into a closet to hack into the network, supposedly planning to freely distribute the documents online.

Question: Supporters have compared Swartz’s actions to “trying to check out too many library books at once.” Threatening him with 35 years in prison, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz said, “Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data, or dollars.” Which is it?

Weir: “Those who think Swartz would have gone to jail for 35 years are reacting emotionally. There is no precedent for such a sentence and I cannot imagine a judge in Mass. imposing such a draconian sentence. No sane judge is going to send Swartz to some hellhole like MCI Bridgewater for this crime. He would have done time in some county lockup “” not a picnic, but not the stuff of bad Hollywood films either.

“But, yes, I do see it as a form of theft. Swartz had permission to use this material for personal use in the same way that I have permission to use Google images for personal use. I do not have permission to download the Google image data base and redistribute it. My university won’t even allow me to post PowerPoints on the Intranet that contain images I don’t own.”

Roche: “This is such a huge tragedy, I haven’t really spent much time trying to understand it since I find it so painful to think about. Still, what little I know makes me side with the ‘too many library books’ crew.

“What makes this case so difficult is that American copyright laws are so completely off-the-wall insane that it becomes difficult for anyone other than the media companies to take them seriously. The absurdity of publishers trying to extort thousands of dollars for the use of a single chart that was previously published in a text book turns even the most honest teachers into the occasional pirates.

“Only the most hardened anarchist among us would deny that what Aaron Schwartz did was wrong on some level “” perhaps legal and perhaps only ethical. I suspect that downloading 4.8 million documents with no possibility of personal gain was some sort of symbolic attempt to bring attention to the degree EULAs’ and publishers’ restrictions unreasonably restrict access to information. When activists engage in civil disobedience, they expect those acts to have consequences, within reason.

“While I’m willing to acknowledge the legal and ethical issues, what I’ve read suggests that this was an absurd example of over-reach by the legal system. While the number of documents is pretty large, it’s hard to see where the serious harm was. And 35 YEARS in prison?”

MOOCs (massive open online courses) have taken the education world by storm in recent months, with the launching of Coursera, Udacity, and edX, among others, drawing millions of students from around the world. Many are saying MOOCs are unquestionably the wave of the future and will democratize education, while others argue that MOOCs are merely a flash in the pan.

Question: Do you agree with those who see the promise of online learners being able to take free classes from famous professors, or those who believe MOOCs will fail to deliver quality learning experiences and encourage cheating?

Weir: “If I know anything from four decades of teaching it’s that anybody who thinks any one method of educating is either a panacea or the wave of the future is a damn fool! Every argument now being made about ‘democratizing’ education via online courses was once made about DVD courses. Before that it was courses on tape or TV. And before that it was correspondence courses.

“‘Democratizing?’ Not in Africa, where most of the continent is untouched by the Internet. Not in the 40% of America that lacks high-speed internet. Could not a cynic suggest that MOOCs are for the middle class, not the masses?

“Despite the ‘buzz’ about online teaching, those who’ve done it will be quick to tell you that self-directed learners are a surprisingly small group of students. I think the potential of MOOCs is great for lifelong learners. It may be less so for the young.

“Isn’t it elitist to think that ‘famous’ professors are the repository of wisdom, or to presume that they are the best teachers? My experience often tells me the opposite. In fact, quite a few famed academics achieve that reputation because of expertise that drifts toward the arcane end of the spectrum. Some of them are pretty lousy educators.

“Do I think MOOCs are a flash or the wave of the future? Neither; I think they are the flavor of the month.”

Roche: “I’m mildly bullish on MOOCS. For better or for worse, the 50- to 90-minute lecture remains one of the most common features of contemporary higher education. For many students it is their only interaction with their faculty during the first few semesters of their programs, even though deep in their hearts even the best lecturers know that this is far from an ideal way for students to learn. Properly supported, MOOCS offer the opportunity to free up an enormous amount of faculty time to find ways to help students actually learn more effectively, increase the ability of students to individualize their learning, increase diversity, and maybe even control some costs.

“A small number of well-planned and supported MOOCs could easily replace those courses for the students in those classes who have access to computers and internet connections. If the MOOC were offered by a faculty member with deep experience and a passion for helping students learn statistics, and if it were supported by a community of other researchers, math teachers, graduate students, and math geeks from around the world, it would quickly surpass what any of us could offer. Careful design in “chunking” and sequencing the course could allow students to move through the material at their own pace and proctored testing could go a long way toward awarding credit for completing the course. The typical university has courses that lend themselves to being replaced in this way with no decrease in the “quality” of the education.

“The problem is that the kind of education that can be offered in this format is only a tiny part of what universities really need to do if we want to prepare students to live and work in the 21st Century. Creating and delivering MOOCS is the easy part; we’ve been delivering lectures for thousands of years. Figuring out the kinds of new learning we should be fostering and how to measure it is much harder.”

When first introduced, the reward of taking MOOCs and using other open courseware materials was simply the knowledge gained. Now, however, MOOC providers have begun to partner with colleges and universities to offer course credits for completed classes, thus shifting the focus back to the institutionalized system of higher education.

Question: Given the crisis of higher education so frequently spoken of “” skyrocketing tuition, heavy student loan burdens, unemployment of college graduates “” should colleges and universities be given the reigns of open courseware, or should a way be found to connect individual academics to the people without the interference of traditional institutions?

Weir: “Can we seriously discuss the above issues without monetary considerations? Of course there a cost crisis in higher ed. Does this make the case for more free education? It might if someone can figure out how to compensate people for their work. I’m not seeing that. Should lifelong education be subsidized like public high schools? I’d be for that, if we actually did subsidize public schools adequately. If it means we starve individuals and institutions, count me out.

“It’s all well and good to say let’s open access to information that’s already out there. Fine, but what of the knowledge producers of tomorrow? How do they get compensated? Who pays for someone else’s ‘free?’ Paying people for their expertise is a fundamental axiom for me. As a labor historian, I do not believe that any worker should toil in any field ? including education ? for free. If the issue is increasing access, I find that a noble goal. If it is to accommodate different learning styles and life circumstances, I agree with that. If it is to reduce costs of education, yes again.

“Do I think that ‘traditional institutions’ can be dispensed with? Hardly. (Self-directed learning) is one tool, not a panacea, and it probably has a more limited audience than assumed. I have elderly friends who have tapped into MOOCs. They like them, but they also say they are no substitute for being in a classroom.

“Isn’t the real crisis the nation’s inattention to educational needs across the board? Doesn’t it really boil down to money? In the 1970s I attended university for a song. Why? Because my government underwrote disadvantaged kids like me and pumped millions into educational structures of all sort. When we talk about the ‘crisis’ in education and we discuss ways to do it on the cheap, are we being cutting-edge, or are we cooperating with the very forces that eviscerated education?”

Roche: “The problem isn’t about learning; it’s about credentialing. In the U.S., we’ve abandoned any discussion about learning and focused most of our resources on the credential and how it can be used in the ‘job market.’ Because the society pays such a high premium for completion of the appropriate credential, learners are willing to pay high prices to get the piece of paper that will allow them access to those jobs and careers that are closed off to them otherwise.

“Over the last half century in the U.S., graduate schools and employers have come to trust universities as sorting and signaling devices so that they can admit or hire. Employers will continue to trust universities over other credentialing agencies until they can find more reliable signaling devices. Universities will fight to retain that control because it is essential to their survival.

“People can and do acquire very sophisticated knowledge and skills in many different ways: on the job, self-study, individual courses, internet forums and the like. But packaging that learning in a way that gets you an interview at Goldman Sachs is nearly impossible without a stamp from Stanford or Harvard Business School “” both of whom will require a credential from an equally impressive institution to even let you in the door. We’re still a long way from the point where a 25-year-old can show up at a major employer with a fist-full of PDFs from a group of MOOCs and get beyond the HR office.”

Although they differ as to extent, both Weir and Roche made it clear that they have reservations as to the potential of open education. But no doubt all of us can agree that we never want to see another case like that of Aaron Swartz. We may disagree on how it is achieved, but increased access to education and information across the globe can’t be anything other than a good thing.

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