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How do you like them apples?

ruffin writes:

There are certain myths about the power of free software, and some apparently [sic] misunderstandings about its characteristics. Though Reilly and Williams mean well (and the sources they site for the history of OSS are well selected; I can personally vouch for Brendan Riley and Laurie Taylor as particularly good people, even if they are from the SEC, and their article at the earlier link (cited by Reilly and Williams) is a good intro to OSS as concept.)

Furthermore, open-source technologies facilitate a commitment to open-content, making the knowledge and information contained within and delivered by technologies, such as course management software and web sites, available to all.” (Reilly & Williams 69)

There’s nothing particular about open source that enables open content, beyond knowing that on no level will others be required to purchase licensed software to access it. Microsoft Word saves to Rich Text, and rich text can be opened by a number of applications, like AbiWord or OpenOffice, that are, themselves, open source software solutions. It’s not like Microsoft claims copyright over your work because you composed in Word. Open content can come equally easily from open source and open content.

I certainly agree that there’s nothing about open source that enables open content, but as many people are arguing (including Laurie and me), academia depends upon a foundational philosophy of an intellectual commons that demands open access to content. By placing our knowledge back in the commons, we accelerate everyone’s use of it.

This attitude does depend, as ruffin seems to acknowledge, on an idea that one must give up one’s claims on “intellectual property,” at least to some degree. He writes:

Others can still use your content to teach for pay. Your dean could still throw fifteen sections of the class on the books using your open content without asking, and now he could do it even if your university doesn’t claim to own the materials by virtue of some esoteric server ownership pact with the devil.

Yep, they can! (Only in Higher Ed would we find this scandalous at all. If you work in any other industry and produce something as part of your work, the company is expected to take that thing and do stuff with it. The folks who came up with the Nike swoosh got paid for doing so, but they don’t maintain rights over it. My cousin who works in biomedical engineering certainly doesn’t expect to keep her research or control it. Only teachers argue that their teaching materials are anything other than “work for hire.”)

Of course, as per Eric Raymond’s rules about gift culture economies, your Dean sure as hell better keep your name on the course. I’ve seen this tendency in action in our Game Design program. I created a course called Game Culture for them that opened up into a multi-section requirement. Being of generous spirit (polish my knuckles on my shirt here), I happily acquiesce to changes they want to make to the syllabus as it evolves past the course that I taught into the course that two or three other instructors teach. While I wouldn’t mind if they took my name off, they still carefully note that the original course was designed by me, and they consult me for each new edition of the syllabus.

Them Apples

But as the MIT OpenCourseWare program suggests, the course materials do not make the course. We learned from Good Will Hunting that all we need for a college education is a library card, right? Maybe if you’re a Southie. Instead, as Alex Reid suggested a while ago on Digital Digs, what students are paying for in higher ed is time: time with an expert, time to discuss and ponder, time with someone trained in both the depth of the discipline and a set of tools to help groups of people think through ideas in a productive way. This is the reason online education has not become the boon administrators thought it would be: you have to staff online courses with people who know what they’re doing, and they need time to do it. Wikipedia makes not only high school research projects nearly worthless (“write a report on dolphins and fishing”), but endangers lecture classes in the same way.

Thus, the concern that someone might sell my syllabus is a limited one, to me–particularly since every syllabus I’ve written is online and CCd, but that’s beside the point. I could see feeling a little chagrined if someone started making bucketloads of money from them, but ultimately my teaching materials are another form of my scholarship–they’re what I’m contributing back to the commons. And our culture is so wedded to the idea that we own our ideas that the idea of losing control of those ideas makes us revolt.

{ 2 } Comments

  1. John | 10 October 2008 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    I forgot to mention earlier that I love this post. You probably figured that out, though, because of the link.

  2. Digital Sextant | 10 October 2008 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Thanks! I was happy to see my writing referred to as “smart” on your blog. 😀

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  1. […] Source and Academia,” an article co-authored by Laurie Taylor and Brendan Riley, Brendan responds to a blog post written by ruffin, that in itself is, in part, a response to the Taylor and Riley […]

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