Paywall/Open Debate Applied To University Education As Well

from the the-same-debate-we've-seen-before dept

DV Henkel-Wallace writes
"The New York Times has a good article about Open Courseware (how universities are putting their material online for anyone to use as they see fit). Unusually, the article has an accurate and pithy summary of how the movement started and evolved. It is still a little incredulous that such a thing can really exist ("On a philosophical level, the idea of making money from something available free might seem questionable."). But it is clear: a little ecosystem is building around this educational material.

What's most interesting, is how the same arguments that have already arisen around the "big data" areas like music, film and news appear in this smaller area as well. When MIT launched OCW, they directly addressed the CwF+RtB issues by pointing out that people attend schools for additional reasons than just the syllabus. But some people still don't get it: a professor from the Tuck School of Business still feels that putting the syllabus out there will let the magic out, claiming that it's "obvious" that an "exclusive experience" is appropriate.

The best quote: "It's pretty hard to imagine how an elite institution like us or like Harvard or Stanford or any of the other top schools would stay in business if they didn't have some aspect of the program that was still relatively complicated and difficult to get to," Mr. Argenti said. And thus they lock some of their content behind a pay wall.

Perhaps they should do a case study of the newspapers and how the pay walls have worked out for them."
DV's summary above is great, but I wanted to highlight one more specific point from the article, which is a quote from James D. Yager, a dean at Johns Hopkins University, who basically presents the other side of the story from Professor Argenti, by actually articulating the difference between the content (infinite) and all of the scarcities that the content makes more valuable:
"We don't offer the course for free, we offer the content for free," Mr. Yager said by telephone in February. "Students take courses because they want interaction with faculty, they want interaction with one another. Those things are not available on O.C.W."
Exactly. That's the point, and it's too bad that a professor at Dartmouth (which is generally a pretty good business school) would so confuse the basic economics of information, and not realize that even if all of the course info is free, there are always aspects that are scarce.

Separately, James Schirmer points us to a related article concerning how some liberal arts schools are using Open Courseware to improve their own programs. It's sort of taking a look at the other side of this overall debate, noting how liberal arts schools can improve their curriculum by having professors use OCW as a resource. Now, the OCW critics will claim that this takes away from the big schools that put content into OCW, but again, that's misunderstanding the market, and assuming a zero-sum game, rather than an ability to expand the overall pie, recognizing that better education programs across the board are a good thing that open up many more opportunities than they take away.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    Ima Fish (profile), Mar 31st, 2010 @ 6:18am

    As far as I can tell, the professor from the Tuck School of Business thinks the sole advantage Harvard or Stanford offers to students is secrecy. I'm trying to figure out how secrecy constitutes value to students.

     

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  2.  
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    Richard (profile), Mar 31st, 2010 @ 6:29am

    Research too

    The same sort of thing applies to research output too. Recently I was discussing how we might use some data that a proposed research program would generate, The assistant dean was saying "well we might be able to make some money out of this by licensing it to others". If we ever do generate something "of value" this way I'm going to say:

    "What do you want - one or two companies paying a bit of money for this - or a hundred researchers using and referencing it?"

     

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  3.  
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    pr, Mar 31st, 2010 @ 6:30am

    Spend time on useful stuff

    In the typical course (K-college) there is an immense pressure to "cover the material". This results in an instructor standing in front of the class talking too fast so the students can transfer the contents of the professor's notebook to their notebook.

    I've been on both sides of the lectern. This method is spectacularly ineffective, but we keep doing it because we've always done it that way.

    Wouldn't it be great if the students could have a copy of the instructor's notebook in advance, so the instructor could spend time explaining what it means and how to use it? Wouldn't it be great for instructors if they could freely adapt available information rather than re-inventing it for every class?

    Nah! Who would want to pay to attend an institution when it gives away all its valuable secret stuff for free? Who would want to listen to an instructor who just plagiarizes stuff from the internet?

    Now get back to work. You have a standardized test to pass.

     

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  4.  
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    Richard (profile), Mar 31st, 2010 @ 6:40am

    The Purpose of a University

    Is to preserve, propagate and extend knowledge. In a sense knowledge is the ultimate customer.

    Money is merely a means to an end.

    If universities put all their material "out there" for all to see (which mine, sadly, doesn't) then knowledge benefits because the "reviewers" that are out there are so much greater in number and hence errors can be corrected that much easier.

    Course material that is locked up has a much bigger chance of being rubbish.

     

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  5.  
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    Ima Fish (profile), Mar 31st, 2010 @ 6:41am

    "This results in an instructor standing in front of the class talking too fast so the students can transfer the contents of the professor's notebook to their notebook"

    I had a professor in law school who went so fast she would write on the chalk board with her right hand and erase with her left.

     

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  6.  
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    Richard (profile), Mar 31st, 2010 @ 6:51am

    Re: Spend time on useful stuff

    "Wouldn't it be great if the students could have a copy of the instructor's notebook in advance, so the instructor could spend time explaining what it means and how to use it? Wouldn't it be great for instructors if they could freely adapt available information rather than re-inventing it for every class?"

    Actually that's not what happens even when the material is available as you say.

    In the second case the reality is actually better...
    I always re-invent the material for every class (even though it is available online) because:

    1) I 'm smarter than all those people who have already put their stuff online - so my version will be better. :?} (tongue in cheek mark)

    2) If I haven't gone through the process of re-creation then I won't understand the stuff properly so I'll be no use when a student asks a question.

    In the first case however the reality is worse. If the material is all available upfront online then most of the students won't even bother to attend to get the scarce personal contact.....
    If they do attend then - because they no longer have to take notes - they just fall asleep (I know I did).

     

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  7.  
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    John Doe, Mar 31st, 2010 @ 6:59am

    Not surprised a professor doesn't understand...

    "It's pretty hard to imagine how an elite institution like us or like Harvard or Stanford or any of the other top schools would stay in business if they didn't have some aspect of the program that was still relatively complicated and difficult to get to," Mr. Argenti said.

    My response to this is, if they don't add any more to the coursework than just a syllabus and required reading, than they don't really add anything at all. But since I suspect that they add much more to it, there is no way that the Harvard, Stanford, etc experience isn't going to be duplicated over the internet.

     

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  8.  
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    yogi, Mar 31st, 2010 @ 7:16am

    Re: Spend time on useful stuff

    I actually did that once. I wrote a text book with all the "insider information" so that the students could read it and the lessons would consist of questions and application of the material to real life situations.

    The funny thing is that once the book was printed - it was used solely for the benefit of the instructors! The students got the same book, with all the extra explanations erased.

    The current, stupid system is just easier for the lecturers - why should they give that up?

    I remember sitting in a lecture hall with another 200 education students hearing a lecture about how lectures are ineffective as an educational tool.How ironic is that?

    P.S. the lecturer is now a successful professor. So maybe lectures are effective - for staff...

     

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  9.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 31st, 2010 @ 7:47am

    The professor forgets about the two most important things that attending a high level institution offers: reputation and professional networking. Those can never be duplicated just by accessing lecture over the internet.

     

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  10.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 31st, 2010 @ 8:24am

    Re: Re: Spend time on useful stuff

    "If the material is all available upfront online then most of the students won't even bother to attend to get the scarce personal contact....."

    But some of the students will, and I'm probably one of those students. Why should I get punished just to compensate for the lazy nature of others?

     

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  11.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 31st, 2010 @ 8:24am

    Re: Re: Re: Spend time on useful stuff

    (to continue)

    Also, some teachers take ROLE sometime in the middle of class and they drop students who are absent X amount of times. Perhaps that's a good way to correct this problem as well.

     

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  12.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 31st, 2010 @ 8:34am

    Re: Re: Spend time on useful stuff

    "I actually did that once. I wrote a text book with all the "insider information" so that the students could read it and the lessons would consist of questions and application of the material to real life situations."

    This is probably one criticism I have on textbooks. I read the textbook and why should it be assumed that I am less competent than the teacher and therefor need information censored so that when the teacher says it I am hearing it for the first time (not to mention some teachers may leave information out leading to a discontinuity in my knowledge and therefore a misunderstanding of the material). This shows a poor understanding of how the brain works, one way we learn is through repetition and hearing/reading the same thing differently under different circumstances. The first time we see something we may process certain preliminary information (usually things like syntax and maybe some notation), but to process it all at once maybe overwhelming. The second time we may process the parts we didn't process the first time (notation, semantics). But when pieces of information are intentionally removed from the book now the teacher's lecture becomes the first time. and I don't want to tape record a lecture and have to navigate through it either (not to mention not all teachers allow recording of their lectures), not to mention sound often gets distorted even and tape recording a lecture doesn't present the visuals that the teacher and book presents as well (ie: pictures and drawings) to bring more context to the issue.

    This is why I prefer those Dummy books even (as much criticism as they get) and NON text books for learning new material for the first time (then it's a good idea to go on to more advanced books after you get the basics). If I want to buy a book I'll often skim through it at the book store or wherever first and I'll determine if it has anything of value, new information that I don't already know taught in a meaningful manner meant to actually educate me.

     

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  13.  
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    CommonSense (profile), Mar 31st, 2010 @ 8:40am

    Re: Re: Spend time on useful stuff

    On one hand, you have a point. I learned Physics in HS, and when I had to take my first physics semester in college, it was the same stuff so I slept through that class. Still got an A because I'd already learned it.

    I had a programming course a couple semesters later, can't remember which, but it wasn't really hard stuff for me to grasp. Professor handed out a book of notes that he'd be going over for the semester, and I looked them all over before hand. I could have skipped class, and probably gotten a B... but I kept going to class to engage the professor in discussion about the topics, because I could prepare questions before class since I already had the notes... Too often I couldn't ask a question while we were going over it, because it didn't always 'click' right away... The other advantage was that I wasn't wasting the whole class copying notes off the whiteboard, which always put me to sleep anyway...

     

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  14.  
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    mikez (profile), Mar 31st, 2010 @ 8:42am

    don't you remember what it was like to take college classes

    I'm sure everyone that attended a college or university had at least one class that they didn't really need to attend. The professor didn't care much about attendance, and as long as you could learn the material and pass the test/write the paper/whatever you received a grade. None of those classes were ever referred to as being great classes.

    The professors are what make the classes great, regardless of the materials or information. Anyone can find the knowledge online these days, but it's the access to the professor and to the other students that makes the classes valuable. The insight provided by the professor and classmates are what make the knowledge accessible to the student.

     

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  15.  
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    mermaldad (profile), Mar 31st, 2010 @ 8:52am

    Another way that OCW can help the professor

    Another way that OCW can help the professor and the university is if some high school teachers use the OCW materials to enhance their teaching. With some difficult concepts it takes time to assimilate them. Having been exposed to a concept briefly in high school can make that concept less foreign when it is discussed in detail in college.

     

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  16.  
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    wsuschmitt (profile), Mar 31st, 2010 @ 10:27am

    Want Scarcity?

    The scarcity comes at the end of all that coursework... it's called a degree.

    The information may be free, but there's no degree associated with it. They need to do everything they can at the college to make sure that people value the degree at the end of the hard work.

    HR at firms will be hiring to fill positions that require degrees, not just the learning of information. Colleges have to realize this and make their delivery more valuable than just a book or an online presentation. If they can't add value...

     

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  17.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 31st, 2010 @ 10:57am

    Re:

    I wonder if there is an instructor that writes with both hands using two pieces of chalk at once?

     

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  18.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 31st, 2010 @ 10:59am

    Re: Another way that OCW can help the professor

    You know the thing is that many of these educational institutes (both college and high school) are largely publicly funded and hence there is no reason not to freely offer everything they offer to the public and allow them to copy as they see fit.

     

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  19.  
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    Jam, Mar 31st, 2010 @ 11:38am

    Market exploitation

    If it was only about the material it would have been stolen long ago. If there was actually a market for stealing course work and using it elsewhere I would think the students would have exploited it long ago. They are elite business school students after all.

    Also does the Tuck professor honestly believe that they will have trouble getting enough students to apply? It's not like the elite business schools don't have ridiculously long waiting lists even with their high standards.

     

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  20.  
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    chris (profile), Mar 31st, 2010 @ 1:54pm

    Re: Want Scarcity?

    The scarcity comes at the end of all that coursework... it's called a degree.

    amen to that.

    colleges are in the degree business, not the course content business. from a career management standpoint, the course content becomes a kind of portfolio for educators and researchers to market their capabilities.

     

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  21.  
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    Andrew F (profile), Mar 31st, 2010 @ 11:50pm

    Exam Questions

    The one thing my professors don't like to release to the general public are exam questions. Their reasoning is that it takes a lot of time and energy to come up with exam questions year after year that are (1) answerable but (2) tricky enough that you have to spend some time answering it and (3) unique enough that you're not likely to encounter the answer to the question with a generic Google search on the topic.

    It's really inconvenient for students because we can't do things like make copies of previous exams for studying purposes.

     

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  22.  
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    Russ (profile), Apr 6th, 2010 @ 12:20pm

    Prof to Student ratio

    Having just gone college hunting last week, the colleges are competing not on content but the student to prof ratio and the number of TA's involved in the teaching.

    I think this is a reaction to the complaints on paying $50K per year for crappy content delivery, not the content itself.

     

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