Akma wrote some interesting things regarding privacy and online education today. It’s a big issue, and something that I find myself arguing about constantly with the powers-that-be who work with courseware at our university. They use WebCT, which I am about to be forced to learn. I hate almost everything about it. I’ve only used it once as a student—not as an instructor—and I found its interface to be clunky, confusing, confining and generally chaotic. The first thing I ever posted into a WebCT shell was a rant about how scholarship should be free— there was no reason for a university to hide behind password-protection when it should be promoting community and sociality.

Of course, there are reasons why universities are quick to embrace these crappy commercial pieces of omnibus software. I suspect they think that if they have to pay for software it must be better. Standardizing software also makes it possible to educate instructors on how to operate it. There is a large amount of resistance among long-suffering tenured faculty regarding learning any new technology. Instead of promoting a range of tools, it’s simpler to just promote one. But the major reason, I think, is the idea that someone might steal the work which an instructor invests in developing a course to sell it to someone else. Education is, after all, a business too. It’s a matter of protecting your property.

Secondly, instructors that teach sensitive courses feel that a private environment promotes greater ease for the students who should feel shielded by a sort of covenant between themselves and the institution, and themselves and the instructor. Their work is thought to be more freely expressive (especially in the case of writing courses) when they have the chance to fail privately, rather than publicly. A private environment is thought to be better for people who are not ready to “solo” in the big bad world of discourse.

To put it mildly, I think these attitudes are bull. As Akma said, “there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with setting course expectations to include the capacity to speak in public on the course’s topic.” I think that the job #1 for any writer is recognizing that they are indeed accountable for what they say, and shielding them from the prying eyes of the public is a completely retrograde attitude. This is not to say that there should be no private interchanges (e-mail works fine!) but that learning to write publicly is a vastly more important part of learning to write. As for the property issue, that part is thorny.

It’s a Napster situation, I think. Having most of the works I use available online has not cut down my actual purchasing of media. I’ll often search a text version of a book, and then pull it off my shelf to read the paper version as I dig deeper into the topic. I have bought a hundred times the number of books I used to buy since major texts started becoming available online. Books are just, well, different from reading stuff off a screen. The computer usually points me down a road, and then the old dead trees satisfy the deeper cravings. Having a course available online is more likely to make me wish I had the money/time to invest in real participation in the learning community. It’s the greatest sales pitch a university could ever have. They could easily gain a hundredfold students for every student they might loose because they “gave it away for free.”

That’s just my opinion though, I could be wrong. In my case, public writing has increased my skill tremendously. I value the feedback I receive from “non-scholars” just as highly as I do from the Ph.D. camp. It’s about communicating, and not about shutting the doors on the world. I thought education was supposed to open people up, not lock them away.

7 thoughts on “Property”

  1. You can, however, flout WebCT’s system for passwords in a variety of ways.
    Keep Guest access turned on, post a note on the front page of your course with a Guest account ID and Password listed, and various other kind of things.
    And you’re quite right to loathe WebCT; it’s wretched, as are all the other “Learning Management Systems” I’ve used and looked at.
    I know exactly what I want, and most of it could be easily created by using opensource apps (like MoveableType and other blogging systems) with an intelligent API for portal access, .rss, and the ability to “eat and spit” data so that users and admins, and content creators are never locked into or down to much of anything.

  2. Thanks, Jeff. This is a tough cause to hang onto — many, many people adhere vigorously to the premise that students shouldn’t have to step out into the public light. I’m just stubborn enough to stick with the “accountability” angle., even if (as seems possible) it costs me grant support and collegial cooperation.
    Will it be any consolation, twenty years from now, to be able to look back and say we were ahead of our time?

  3. RSS, and Cheers for the Home Team

    I didn’t notice that Pem (to whom a hearty Welcome back! from her week at a spiritual direction workshop) has an RSS feed — that’ll help me keep up with her, so that I don’t miss posts such as “Alternatives to PowerPoint&#…

  4. Being as I’m very much in the thick of this just now (the only academic thick I’m ever likely to be in), I’m duty-bound to point out: Movable Type is not open source and its license is both vague and constricting, which is uncomfortable for any institution that has to respect licenses. WebCT benefits from coherence in its business practices, if not in its interfaces.

  5. Jeff,
    My most sincere condolences! I struggled with a baroquely backward-looking proprietary “course management system” for 3 years. Eventually, I rebelled, learned Zope, and built my own simple teaching/learning platform from the ground up — not recommended, necessarily, but it worked for me! Pecularities at my school let me route around the course containment policies.
    I agree with you about the value of “open source knowledge.” If you haven’t read it, check out Pekka Himanen’s The Hacker Ethic on the connections between open source and the academic tradition.
    And, it seems this may not be an option, but just in case: Plone works quite well as a course delivery platform, pretty much out of the box. See my Networked Narrative course (taught this term by another instructor). You’d need a discussion board or weblog tool, but I think they’re available (haven’t keep current lately). It would allow you to, say, leave the content web-accessible but password-protect the discussion/weblog areas, if that served the needs of the course. “Local niches” can be useful for fostering discussion, though I think you’re right that public address can valuable, too. =}

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