A Collision Between Changes in Higher Education and Changes in Publishing
How do you assign readings to a large number of people in a free online course?
I’ve been puzzling over this question this week. I voted against the creation of our online master’s of computer science, and I still have serious reservations about it–particularly about the hastiness of the development plan. But since we’re going ahead with the program, I was thinking maybe I’d offer a class. (We’re doing it–I might as well help.) Our model is that classes have a for-credit section for which students pay a low tuition, and a free not-for-credit one (MOOC). The for-credit students will have access to our library. The free students of course can’t. So this week I asked what I thought was a simple question: how do we get readings to the MOOC students?
I asked colleagues teaching online classes, administrators, and our library. No one really had an answer. One colleague suggested the students “will just have to find the reading on their own.” (That seems like a lawsuit in the making–encouraging copyright infringement.) Another said “I might not assign any reading, since the MOOC students can’t get access to it.” (Really? Does the future of higher education involve watching videos and not reading?)
At first I thought, “This is an administrative detail. They’ll figure out a solution.” But I woke up this morning with another view: there is a collision between potential changes in higher education and changes in publishing.
Open access publishing would solve our problem. There are more and more demands for publishing to be open access. It seems wrong for federal research dollars to fund work and have the results end up behind a commercial pay wall. Georgia Tech now has a policy requiring faculty to publish in open access venues, though there is as yet no enforcement, there is an easy exception mechanism, and most faculty don’t even know the policy exists. But moving to open access publishing in the future doesn’t solve the problem of how we access materials already published under a for-pay model. (You know–most of the world’s knowledge except a few recent things published open access and a few really old ones in the public domain? That stuff?) And it doesn’t solve the problem of how publishers stay in business. I would not want to be a book or music publisher at the moment.
OK, maybe this really is an administrative detail. Maybe we can ask MOOC students to pay a small fee to get access to licensed readings. (Though as I’ve written before, free is radically different from cheap in a psychological sense.) We’ll figure something out. But this detail is a symptom of fascinating broader issues. There is a collision between changes in higher education and changes in publishing, and a collision between some changes that are happening at lightning speed and others that will take a decade or more to sort out.