18 October 2009

Opencourseware Comes Under Attack

It was bound to happen: opencourseware is under attack:

While seeking to make college more accessible, the Obama administration has launched a largely unnoticed assault upon the nation’s vibrant market in online learning. As part of an ambitious bill designed to tighten federal control over student lending, the House of Representatives included a scant few sentences green-lighting a White House plan to spend $500 million on an “Online Skills Laboratory,” in which the federal government would provide free online college courses in a variety of unspecified areas. The feds would make the courses “freely available” and encourage institutions of higher education to offer credit for them. The measure is now before the Senate.

Ah yes, "freely available": that communistic cancer again.

It is not clear what problem the administration is seeking to solve. The kinds of online courses that the administration is calling for already exist, and are offered by an array of publishers and public and private institutions. Online enrollment grew from 1.6 million students in 2002 to 3.9 million in 2007. Nearly 1,000 institutions of higher education provide distance learning.

More than half a dozen major textbook publishers, and hundreds of smaller providers, develop and distribute online educational content. To take one example, Pearson’s MyMathLab is a self-paced, customizable online course, which the University of Alabama uses to teach more than 10,000 students a year. Janet Poley, president of the American Distance Education Consortium, doesn’t see the need for federal dollars to be spent “reinventing courses that have already been invented.”

Since it's "not clear what problem the administration is seeking to solve", allow me to offer a little help.

The article suggests that the kinds of online courses that will be created are already on offer: well, no, because those produced by "major textbook publishers, and hundreds of smaller providers" are neither "free of charge" nor "free" in the other, more interesting sense that you can take them, rework them, reshape them, and then share them. And why might that be a good idea? Well, most importantly, because it means that you don't have to "reinvent courses that have already been invented."

Oh, but wait: isn't that what the article says the current situation avoids? Indeed: and that, of course, is where the article goes wrong. The existing courses, which are proprietary, and may not be copied or built on, cause *precisely* the kind of re-inventing of the wheel that opencourseware is accused of. That's because every publisher must start again, laboriously recreating the same materials, in order to avoid charges of copyright infringement.

That's an absurd waste of effort: the facts are the same, so once they are established it's clearly much more efficient to share them and then move on to create new content. The current system doesn't encourage that, which is why we need to change it.

Given the article gets things exactly the wrong way round, it's natural to ask how the gentleman who penned these words might have come to these erroneous conclusions. First, we might look at where he's coming from - literally:

Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Here's what SourceWatch has to say on this organisation:

The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI) is an extremely influential, pro-business, conservative think tank founded in 1943 by Lewis H. Brown. It promotes the advancement of free enterprise capitalism, and succeeds in placing its people in influential governmental positions. It is the center base for many neo-conservatives.

And if that doesn't quite explain why Mr Hess might be pushing a somewhat incorrect characterisation of the situation, try this:

In 1980, the American Enterprise Institute for the sum of $25,000 produced a study in support of the tobacco industry titled, Cost-Benefit Analysis of Regulation: Consumer Products. The study was designed to counteract "social cost" arguments against smoking by broadening the social cost issue to include other consumer products such as alcohol and saccharin. The social cost arguments against smoking hold that smoking burdens society with additional costs from on-the-job absenteeism, medical costs, cleaning costs and fires. The report was part of the global tobacco industry's 1980s Social Costs/Social Values Project, carried out to refute emerging social cost arguments against smoking.

So, someone coming from an organisation that has no qualms defending the tobacco industry is unlikely to have much problem denouncing initiatives that spread learning, participation, collaboration, creativity, generosity and general joy in favour of all their antitheses. And the fact that such a mighty machine of FUD should stoop to attack little old opencourseware shows that we are clearly winning.


Unknown said...

Thanks Glyn, I hadn't seen that one, and I strongly suspect you are right.

Glyn Moody said...

It's the first I've seen, but I'm sure it won't be the last...

Shlomi Fish said...

I don't see what a report written by the same institute 29 years ago has anything to do with the issue at hand. This seems like an Ad hominem attack to me. Naturally, it does not necessarily disprove your claims, but it is still besides the main issue and irrelevant.

Glyn Moody said...

@shlomi: I think it shows a continuity of approach: that is, that their arguments have little to do with the evidence, but push a dogmatic line of thinking - which is exactly the case of the attack on open courseware.