12 September 2008

Copy to the People

Okay, another chapter on the politics of academe and what I said to lose me an adjunct position at a school where I had previously held tenure for a period of time.

As a recap:
4 -- Copy to the Check
3 -- Open Source College Textbooks
2 -- Copy to the Door
1 -- Copy to the Left, Copy to the Right

I want to make a bold pronouncement here.

Intellectual property rights are bad for education.

Now, let me be the first one to say they are important, and even necessary. They certainly benefit the owners of the intellectual property.

The problem is that they can negatively impact the quality of education.

So let's start at first principles ... what is education? Well, it is the system of educating others, for helping to grow and develop and to give them the knowledge they need to function in some context or another. From the general context of a well-rounded public education to the specific contexts that one finds in Ph.D. programs and technology training programs. (Okay, I can't believe I just put those two on an equal footing in the same sentence either.)

So it is the sharing of knowledge. The knowledge, at least in the dumbed-down super-simplistic model, flows from the instructor to the students. This means that, by definition, education is about the sharing of knowledge so that others can take it and make use of it.

Intellectual property is, on the other hand, about the protection of knowledge, preventing others from using it without express permission of the author / originator. And already you begin to see the problem. Even if, by teaching a class, the instructor has implicitly agreed to allow students to use the knowledge they have chosen to structure in a particular way in its presentation, there is already a slippery slope where students have to worry about what portions of what they have learned they are and are not allowed to use beyond the confines of the originating classroom.

Fortunately, that can be resolved with the original research concept, where students are supposed to go beyond their instructors and further the realm of knowledge, either through day to day application or through the creation of new intellectual properties. It may still be a minefield of legal pitfalls, but at least it comes with a map and a clearly marked exit. (This is only a problem when different instructors give you contradictory maps and insist you use theirs to the exclusion of all others.)

But really, instructors assume students are going to make use of what they are taught, so that is a pretty weak opposition to intellectual property. The problem is that it is only the tip of the iceberg. It is what we see, and what we think of as education. But as with the iceberg, most of what education is exists below the waterline, beyond the classroom.

In order to educate, instructors must educate themselves. They must then document what they have learned in order to educate others. That process of documentation is the point at which new intellectual property is generated.

There are two ways in which instructors can educate themselves. One is by locking themselves away with the works of others and hunting for answers. The other is communicating with other instructors and sharing ideas and works to build something that works.

This is where intellectual property law throws a wrench in the machine.

Although many instructors, at least at the university level, are happy to collaborate on research, they seem significantly less happy to collaborate of pedagogy. Thus you hear endless horror stories from college adjuncts having opportunities to teach a class only to find all three full-time faculty have entirely different syllabi, outlines, and expectations from the course and none of them are willing to share any of the actual course materials unless they are teaching canned courses purchased by the school. This can inspire many an adjunct aspiring to be a tenured faculty member some day to go into private industry instead. Especially the competent ones.

This is a problem.

What it means is there is no quality assurance between sections of the class, no collaboration between faculty to find weaknesses and strengths in each other's work, and large quantities of duplicated effort (every second of which is agonizingly complained about) as each faculty member strives to reinvent the wheel. Practical upshot: Two students taking the same course at the same institution with two different instructors have no guarantee of having the opportunity to learn the same material at the same levels of depth and breadth.

Moreover, with each faculty member striving to reinvent the wheel we find many faculty end up opting for lowest-common-denominator education because there just isn't enough time to do that really good job they all secretly want to do. (Academics are rabid perfectionists, otherwise they wouldn't put up with what they put up with to do what they do.) It also creates dismay among faculty who would like to be spending more time doing research and less time doing course prep. Admittedly, more an issue for junior faculty not teaching things they have taught for 20 years, but those are also the ones trying to establish a publications record, be a good institutional citizen, and get tenure.

So, and I wish I could say this is purely hypothetical, intellectual property rights in the academic setting leads to inconsistent and mediocre educational quality. The places that avoid this are the ones that actively encourage (if not mandate) sharing between faculty.

In order for education to be truly successful, instructors need to actively and freely share their course materials and ideas with one another to ensure consistency across courses and sections. This would reduce their work loads, provide initial support networks for adjuncts and new faculty, and strengthen pedagogy through simple peer review.

Sharing is critical to education. There is no room for "mine, mine, mine" in the pedagogical frame. It needs to be about "we" and "us" and, most importantly, about students. It is not about egos. Okay, the problem is that it is about egos, and it shouldn't be.

The current trends in attitudes toward intellectual property are giving us educators who feel that the resources they have created for learning are tools from them to profit from and not tools to help others to learn. I am not entirely sure the two are commensurable.

This needs to change.

This doesn't mean that faculty members need to do the same with all their research, just with their course materials. Independent research, as well as being a tool to further knowledge, is rather openly a tool for personal gain on the part of the researcher. Otherwise why give up having a life in order to spend all that time on a topic maybe 1% of the world has any interest in, if you're lucky. That works better through collaboration too, but what I am talking about with course materials is open and unfettered sharing, not unlike MIT does with its course materials.

Okay, in my next rant on the topic, I will take a stab at how it can change and some if the ideas we need to think about in order to make sharing palatable for the greedy and the paranoid (alas, a common breed among underpaid, overworked, entirely stressed out academics).

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