Unexploited Resources of Online Education for Democracy - Why the Future Should Belong to OpenCourseWare
First Monday

Unexploited Resources of Online Education for Democracy - Why the Future Should Belong to OpenCourseWare by Kei Ishii and Bernd Lutterbeck

With Massachusetts Institute of Technology's bold OpenCourseWare Initiative, one of the world's leading universities is making its teaching material accessible on the Internet, free of charge, to any user anywhere in the world. While this seems counterintuitive in the trend toward commercialization in today's educational markets, we argue that this strategy could not only prove successful economically, but also exploit human capital resources that would foster innovation and strengthen the democratic foundation of a knowledge-based society.


Offering Online Courseware
Publishers and Colleagues - Two Experiences with Online Education
Education as a Good - The Privatization of Knowledge
World Trade Agreements and Copyright Laws - Two Strategies toward Commoditization and Privatization of Knowledge
Hard Questions
Open Source and OpenCourseWare - Two Strategies Offering Alternatives
... and the Consequences
Governance and Soft Power!




We are told that education, together with health and water, is the next market of the future. According to an estimate by Merryll Lynch, this education market alone is worth some $US2.2 billion [1], with online education taking a big share of it. Some even go so far to claim that online education is the next killer application for the Internet.

Much of this probably is quite overexagerated. But education lies at the heart of any society, and as such is reshaped by the online revolution. And questions raised for society at large also apply to education in particular:

"Tomorrow's information and communication infrastructure is being shaped today. But by whom and to what ends? Will it meet the needs of all people? Will it help the citizenry address current and future issues? Will it promote democracy, social justice, and sustainability? Will the appropriate research be conducted? Will equitable policies be enacted?" [2]

Important questions indeed, and as such almost overwhelming. Instead of bold concepts and reliance on common sense, a more cautionary approach with an open mind are called for. In what follows we will not present any final answers, but instead suggest that in order to approach such questions, we should proceed cautiously and not let us be deceived by what appears to be "common sense".



Offering Online Courseware

In the mid 1990s we were among the first in our university to bring one of our courses that we teach into the then new World Wide Web. "Don't you worry that the students might not visit your course?" was a question the colleagues kept asking. Even if we kept such fears, they proved completely groundless. Offering the basic materials online gave our students the freedom to choose what and when to read the basic material - thus leaving much more time to us for lively face-to-face discussion in the classroom. Nowadays this and other means to communicate electronically with the students are part of our daily teaching routine, and we feel that our communication and relationship with the students has much improved, both in our classes as well as outside. The student rankings for our courses also appear to support our experience.

These electronic means to reach the students enhance what serves as the foundation of our teaching concept, or rather teaching ideal:

Knowledge is not some 'commodity', 'good' or 'thing' to be handed over, but is constructed by the students themselves.

We do not 'give' knowledge, but help students construct knowledge. We think this is what recent education research has labeled the "constructivist" model of learning. It is interesting to note that one of us learned this concept long ago while studying constitutional law; juridical texts and legal norms themselves are without any meaning. It is only the interpretation that 'construct' their meaning. Electronic means of communication allows us to reach students in more - and better - ways in order to help them construct knowledge.



Publishers and Colleagues - Two Experiences with Online Education

So far, so good. There is no reason why we should not continue to teach in this way, using the ever-growing new possibilities of the electronic medium. Or is there?

Our first experience that made us think about the whole situation occurred sometime after we began online offerings. A well-known Austrian publisher alleged that we infringed their copyright with our course material. Indeed we did include a compilation of facts about European integration from 1918 until now - some 15 pages - out of one of their books into our online course material, but with all proper citation of author and work. Although we still believe that it is part of the academic freedom to use this information in the way we did, we did not want our families to suffer from our academic beliefs. By paying a small fine the case was settled.

But it is the second experience that really got us concerned. With our online offerings coming rather into age - and far from perfect to say at least - we gladly accepted an offer to participate in a research project supported by the German Ministry of Education and Research. This project aims to develop a common platform for online courses in the field of "Computers and the Law". What we expected was to find a forum where problems ranging from simple administration of Web offerings to societal challenges such as copyright were openly discussed. But after some meetings it became clear what the other participants - mostly legal professors from several German universities - came together for: to create a marketable product which then would be licensed to some publisher. It should be added that in Germany the market for legal publication has a quasi-monopolistic structure.

There is certainly more than just one way to the truth in real life. But these experiences certainly make us wonder what will remain of our teaching ideal should we decide to follow our colleagues.



Education as a Good - The Privatization of Knowledge

The diagnosis of this trend in higher education is undisputed, and support the position of our colleagues. It is what KerryAnn O'Meara accurately describes as "consumerism, capitalism and for-profit competition" (O'Meara, 2001). First, students become customers of colleges as vendors. Next, new financial sources have to be found to raise the cost of the consumerism and compensate for the declining public funding. And finally, non-profit universities establish for-profit subsidiaries in order to become financially self-sufficient, with for-profit or publicly traded corporations entering the lucrative market of higher education. Add to this the internationalization of higher education, and we can follow Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education in Boston, when he states: "We are in the midst of a revolution in the delivery of academic programs of all kinds, internationally" (Altbach, 2000). This revolution is the commoditization and privatization of knowledge and education.



World Trade Agreements and Copyright Laws - Two Strategies toward Commoditization and Privatization of Knowledge

The discussion about the future online education seems to miss one important development. In legal terms, education is an international commodity, and as such falls under the regulations of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). As a consequence, national or European efforts toward any regulations in the area of education could be interpreted as a trade barrier which infringes the concept of free trade and international competition. Therefore, the GATS may further accelerate the trend toward the privatization (and 'Americanization') of knowledge. Not surprisingly, the GATS stands high on the agenda of the current negotiations, with results expected in 2002.

The story would not be complete without mentioning the current developments in international copyright law. Again the WTO served as a first forum, with their members having agreed to a treaty which intends to alter copyright laws to the digital era. The United States was the first nation to change their copyright laws accordingly by enacting the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in 1998. In spring of 2001, the EU followed suit [3], with their members having to adopt the changes into their national laws by December 2002.

The basic concept behind these changes is quite simple, as Jessica Litman explains [4]:

  1. Any use of a digital work - to view, read, hear etc. - requires a reproduction of that work in the computer's memory.
  2. Copyright statute gives exclusive control over reproductions to the copyright holder.
  3. Ergo, for each use - to view, read, hear etc. - the user needs either a statutory privilege or the copyright holder's permission.

Simply said, the copyright holder has absolute control over any use of every single bit of content. In conjunction with an international trend toward the privatization of knowledge, and - we might be wrong, and we normally do not delve into conspirational theories - this looks like all dreams coming true for Hollywood and the emerging education industry, almost like a strategic alliance of both industries.



Hard Questions

Now think about our legal colleagues in education mentioned earlier. Our strong guess is that they would just follow the logic of the new copyright law. Their main question would be: What will the royalties be like for copyright holders and entrepreneurs in the online education market? While this probably deserves an answer, we think that we first should be concerned with questions that Jessica Litman poses: "What is it the public should get from the copyright bargain? What does the public need, want, or deserve? [W]hat is it that we want the public to be able to do with those works?" [5]

While it is widely agreed that there is a trend toward the privatization of education, it is far from clear that result is better education for everyone. On the contrary, this trend may lead to "digital diploma mills" (Noble, 1998) where private corporations churn out academic degrees in order to maximize shareholder value. Altbach certainly is right when he cautions us: "All of this does not mean that these new trends are evil". But how should we proceed?

Chris Werry has a point when he observes that: "Too much academic work ignores the most important forces shaping online education, leaves large areas of debate uncontested and doesn't really speak to groups actively involved in new media who could constitute potential allies". Looking for alternatives to current models of online education, he rather pragmatically suggests five points on how we should proceed (Werry, 2001):

  • Give administrators alternatives;
  • Ensure control of academic resources and construct strategic alliances;
  • Examine the rhetoric of online education;
  • Proceed cautiously; and,
  • Train students to be "community architects".

Werry without a doubt knows that electronic property rights are the crucial points in this new strategy. What he looks for are "ventures designed to advance an open source movement for online academic resources".

Open Source?



Open Source and OpenCourseWare - Two Strategies Offering Alternatives ...

Readers of First Monday certainly are very knowledgeable about the Open Source software movement, made popular by the almost ubiquitous Linux operating system. But let us reiterate what makes it so interesting: Besides all differences in detail, open sourcing means that the source code of a software program is distributed along with the program, making it possible to study its workings, to modify it or even derive other software from it. The open source license allows for free redistribution by anyone without paying any licensing fees or royalties to the author; the only condition for redistribution - modified or not - is that the same licensing terms have to be applied (Weber, 2000). In essence, software authors give up their right to restrict or control access to source code but in turn get access to all other open source software, to peruse it, to create new open source software [6].

So process over product - open source over closed software.

Think about this concept in the area of education: Create knowledge in others, or sell knowledge products to them. Yet another lunatic idea from academia lacking common sense? Maybe not quite, according to the initiative launched by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called OpenCourseWare:

"The idea behind MIT OpenCourseWare (MIT OCW) is to make MIT course materials that are used in the teaching of almost all undergraduate and graduate subjects available on the Web, free of charge, to any user anywhere in the world.

MIT OpenCourseWare will provide the content of, but is not a substitute for, an MIT education. The most fundamental cornerstone of the learning process at MIT is the interaction between faculty and students in the classroom, and amongst students themselves on campus" (MIT, 2001a).

Let us reiterate: The education market is a potentially extraordinarily valuable market. It is unclear though which kind of rules should govern this market, and what issues - sustainability, democracy and public access - have to be taken account of, and how. The current answers, by international laws, by the activities of corporations and educational institutions alike, are all based on one assumption: That knowledge is a commodity, and education is a product.

Now the Open Source movement as well as the OpenCourseWare initiative differ in this assumption: Their (and our) claim is that knowledge, education is a process:

"The software product itself is valuable but is not the key to understanding open source. The process is what matters most" (Weber, 2000).

"The most fundamental cornerstone of the learning process [...] is the interaction between faculty and students, [...] among students themselves" (MIT, 2001a).



... and the Consequences

Is Open Source and OpenCourseWare really the way to go? The process over the product? Again, isn't it merely an excuse of too-naïve academics who just are too afraid to share the real challenges and threats?

You probably will agree with us that a top-tier U.S. university cannot be accused of lacking any economic sense - MIT would certainly not endeavor to do anything that could prove disastrous financially. So how does MIT President Charles M. Vest explains the rationale behind this initiative? In his words, "OpenCourseWare looks counter-intuitive in a market driven world. It goes against the grain of current material values. But it really is consistent with what I believe is the best about MIT. It is innovative. It expresses our belief in the way education can be advanced - by constantly widening access to information and by inspiring others to participate" (MIT, 2001b).

MIT's logic simply can be described in this way: More open access to source code or course material will generally lead to an increase of knowledge, which in turn will lead to increased innovation in all fields, and stimulate the economy, which ultimately will benefit MIT. By fostering this sort of exchange, we encourage innovation, and thus society as well as the economy will profit from it. In contrast, the commoditization and tight control of information and communication will limit this exchange, thus threatening the exploitation of these human capital resources. If the main resource is the process of knowledge exchange, not the knowledge products, then protecting the latter at the cost of severely constraining the former looks like a very bad idea.



Governance and Soft Power!

We suspect that our legal colleagues will not take even an MIT initiative very seriously. In a way, legal common sense is on their side, as are the trends in copyright law (a "self-fulfilling prophecy?").

Consider a different perspective on OpenCourseWare. OpenCourseWare, as well as Open Source, differ from their counterparts in that they depart from given simple relationships - producer to consumer, college-provider to student-customer - that are backed by the coercive power of the nation-state. Instead they employ a broader set of policy tools that let the participants structure - including, but not solely the state - diverse relationship and create new instruments to govern change - through Governance and soft power.

This Governance concept is well known in the framework of the European Union: "[R]ules, processes and behavior that affect the way in which powers are exercised at European level, particularly as regards openness, participation, accountability, effectiveness and coherence" (Commission of the European Communities, 2001). The power relationships are not something that is given by the polity of a society, but has to be created between those affected. What will be the institutional outcome is open to negotiation, governed by a set of basic principles such as openness or accountability. The OpenCourseWare Initiative and the Open Source movement are prime example for such a breeding ground for creating new governance structures.

Soft power is best explained by Joseph Nye and William Owens: "[Soft power] is the ability to achieve desired outcomes in international affairs through attraction rather than coercion. It works by convincing others to follow, or getting them to agree to, norms and institutions that produce the desired behavior" (Nye and Owens, 1996). One of the results for nation-states is that they "may not need to expend as many of its costly traditional or military resources". Thus, soft power also is about the attraction of U.S. democracy and free markets. Again, OpenCourseWare and Open Source provide the field for the participants to use the soft power, to create the norms and institutions necessary to learn, create, invent, innovate and last not least succeed economically.

Lawyers and legal scholars are trained to understand and manipulate power. But they tend to follow the interests of those who hold the most power. If we consider the MIT Initiative without any bias, it could be very well imagined that we could soon find some new allies to work toward a different kind of educational environment. End of article


About the Authors

Kei Ishii is a teaching and research assistant in the Research Area "Informatics and Society" in the Computer Science Department of the Technical University of Berlin.
E-mail: kish@cs.tu-berlin.de

Bernd Lutterbeck is professor for applied computer science at the Technical University of Berlin.
E-mail: narwal@cs.tu berlin.de



1. See Hans-Herbert Holzamer, "Ausbildung as Handelsware," ("Education as Commodity"), Sueddeutsche Zeitung, 7 July 2001.

2. From the "Call for Papers" for the CPSR conference Shaping the future. Patterns for Participation, Action, and Change, 16-19 May 2002, in Seattle, see http://www.cpsr.org/conferences/diac02/.

3. Directive 2001/29/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 May 2001 on the harmonisation of certain aspects of copyright and related rights in the information society. The text of the directive can be accessed at http://europa.eu.int/comm/internal_market/en/intprop/docs/.

4. Litman, 2001, p. 95.

5. Litman, 2001, pp. 174-5.

6. See Robles, Scheider, Tretkowski and Weber, 2001.



All URLs valid as of 1 September 2001.

Philip G. Altbach, 2000. "The Crisis in Multinational Higher Education," International Higher Education (Boston Center for International Higher Education), number 21 (Fall), at http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/soe/cihe/newsletter/ihe_pdf/ihe21.pdf.

Commission of the European Communities, 2001. European Governance: A White Paper. COM(2001) 428 (25 July). Brussels: Commission of the European Communities, at http://europa.eu.int/comm/governance/white_paper/en.pdf.

Andrew Feenberg, 1999. "Distance Learning: Promise or Threat?," at http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/feenberg/TELE3.HTM.

Jessica Litman, 2001. Digital Copyright: Protecting Intellectual Property on the Internet. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), 2001a. "MIT OpenCourseWare Factsheet," (4 April), at http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/nr/2001/ocw-facts.html.

MIT, 2001b. "MIT to make nearly all course materials available free on the World Wide Web," (4 April), at http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/nr/2001/ocw.html.

David Noble, 1998. "Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education," First Monday, volume 3, number 1 (January), at http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue3_1/noble. http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v3i1.569

Joseph S. Nye, Jr. and William A. Owen, 1996. "America's Information Edge," Foreign Affairs, volume 75, number 2 (March-April), pp. 20-54. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/20047486

KerryAnn O'Meara, 2001. "The Impact of Consumerism, Capitalism, and Competition," International Higher Education (Boston Center for International Higher Education), number 22 (Winter), at http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/soe/cihe/newsletter/ihe_pdf/ihe22.pdf.

Gregorio Robles, Hendrik Scheider, Ingo Tretkowski and Niels Weber, 2001. "Who Is Doing It? A Research on Libre Software developers," Fachgebiet für Informatik und Gesellschaft TU-Berlin, (August), at http://widi.berlios.de/paper/study.html.

Steven Weber, 2000. "The Political Economy of Open Source Software," BRIE Working Paper 140, University of Berkeley, California, at http://brie.berkeley.edu/~briewww/pubs/wp/wp140.pdf.

Chris Werry, 2001. "The Work of Education in the Age of E-College," First Monday, volume 5, number 6 (June), at http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue6_5/werry/.

Editorial history

Paper received 4 October 2001; accepted 12 October 2001.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2001, First Monday

Unexploited Resources of Online Education for Democracy - Why the Future Should Belong to OpenCourseWare by Kei Ishii and Bernd Lutterbeck
First Monday, volume 6, number 11 (November 2001),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue6_11/ishii/index.html

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