[iDC] 5 years of MIT Open Courseware and the proceeds of openness

Trebor Scholz trebor at thing.net
Thu Apr 6 12:07:59 EDT 2006

MIT Open CourseWare is five years old. In this short time period the
project has become remarkably popular. The idea is simple: online,
Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) makes literally all of its
undergraduate and graduate syllabi freely available. This is a
commendable act at a time when more and more educators hide their
syllabi behind password-shielded walls. Many users of MIT Open
Courseware (OCW) in developing countries who left testimonials on the
OCW website are highly enthusiastic about the project. But where are the


My concern is not so much with the project itself but rather with the
language that is used to describe and contextualize it. To believe that
this initiative would enable the international re-location of power
through the free distribution of knowledge (as claimed by the creators)
perhaps overestimates its potential. OCW can be accessed predominantly
in English despite the fact that there are attempts to translate the
project. Worldwide Internet access is limited by all means. MIT clearly
portrays itself as offering a huge gift to the world.


Richard Coyne writes in response Marcel Mauss' notion of the gift that
"the society of the gift also resonates with McLuhan's account of social
transformation brought about by electronic communications, and is
classically utopian." Can social transformation be attributed to digital
communication is a related question that Coyne raises. Does offering
knowledge online automatically mitigate global knowledge discrepancies?


In his First Monday essay "Lessons from Open Source: Intellectual
Property and Courseware" Jan Newmarch argues for open courseware such as
MIT OCW. He writes:

"In this competitive age, universities are seeking ways to protect their
intellectual property, for fear that it might be stolen or used by
others without financial benefit coming back to the university.
Increasingly, universities are using mechanisms of secrecy to secure
their property."


Newmarch argues that this approach is wrong both, from a moral and a
business perspective. I agree. Public universities are building on tax
money and thus have the duty to contribute the produced knowledge back
to the public domain. In addition, the politics of visibility that comes
with Google's search engine results allows universities to become more
present in public awareness.

MIT OCW makes the private institution MIT turn up in many more searches
compared to the times prior to MIT OCW's inception. Newmarch suggests
"If a university can make its courseware hold the public perception in
an area, then its advertising is more effective than that of other
universities." MIT's act of openness benefits this corporate institution
tremendously on a cultural and financial level. The proceeds of


The rhetoric of "5 years of educating the world" sounds all too
philanthropic. Richard Coyne describes "internet generosity [as] a cheap
form of altruism" in which it is possible to give and still retain the
gift. Information is accessed, and files may be copied but all this
knowledge is still available to the institution after it is accessed or
copied. The perception of MIT OCW as a snow-white benevolent, purely
altruistic gesture misses out on some, perhaps a little more hidden
dynamics of the project. The gift is presented in the form of
educational material that "outgifts" most academic rivals. It enters an
open contest of giving. The MIT OCW About page states "MIT OCW would not
be possible without the support and generosity of the MIT faculty who
choose to share their research, pedagogy, and knowledge to benefit
others." It this an act of giving without receiving? A community college
would hardly benefit from such act of openness. "One gives in excess in
order for the opponent to reach the limit of his or her giving, and to
be incapacitated or shamed" and "Failure to reciprocate indicates
defeat, suggests loss of status, and in archaic societies requires
ritualized restitution." writes Coyne. A private institution such as MIT
thus establishes a hierarchy within the self-interested gift exchange
and re-inscribes its market leadership. Each course syllabus adapted by
a school in India, for example, becomes an advertisement for MIT. It
increases its visibility. Students and faculty worldwide become
attracted to the institution through the visibility of its syllabus
repository. While MIT OCW contributes to the de-commodification of
knowledge, it simultaneously inscribes itself in a hierarchy of
exchange. In the transaction of giving the gift giver places herself in
a hierarchical position, gaining much financial and cultural capital.
Richard Coyne, quoting Bataille, points out that "the gift, particularly
in its manifestation as potlatch, bears the seeds of class struggle and
oppression. [...] The ostentation of the potlach is the reserve of the
aristocracy, who truly have the means to squander."


In addition, at least in the fields of media art, I could not find much
useful material when browsing through MIT OCW databases. This may,
admittedly, drastically different in disciplines such as engineering. In
the before mentioned area of my interest I could barely find supporting
course materials (lecture notes, assignments, etc).


Furthermore, MIT OCW's "course mine" is non-participatory. Scholars in a
given field cannot add, or correct the listed material. MIT OCW does not
live up to the promise of an open source approach. In the open source
software development a group of programmers can collectively fix bugs
because the code is openly accessible and hence the product becomes more
stable. Experts all over the world could contribute to  MIT OCW and
improve on it. They could add resources and perhaps edit, and correct
existing knowledge chunks.

Additional open courseware project include H20, and Connexions. Both of
these projects allow for collaborative authorship. They encourage users
to improve on each others entries. Individual knowledge production is
challenged by the opportunity to cooperate. Power relations based on
access to knowledge are challenged. People searching for materials have
the possibility to find relevant, up-to-date texts and resources like
videos or audio material in these free and accessible knowledge pools.
Siva Vaidhyanathan in his text "Copyright as Cudgel" (originally
published in Chronicle of Higher Education. Aug 2, 2002) points to the
question of open content.


"Academics have more to lose in the copyright wars than most people do.
We are not only the source of much of the "content" in the world. We are
-- through our teaching and research -- among the major conduits and
consumers of the content that others provide. We have a vested interest
in keeping information flowing as cheaply, widely, and quickly as
possible. We need a rich, diverse, affordable, and accessible
information ecosystem to do our jobs."

I agree with Vaidhyanathan. An attitude of sharing material,
distributing it and giving open access to knowledge is crucial. Jon
Newmark argues that:

"Universities are often held as some sort of moral pinnacle of knowledge
discovery and learning. Universities hold a privileged position as
collectors and dispensers of knowledge. They are expected to maintain an
unbiased and open view on current knowledge.

With increasing commercial forces acting upon universities, it is widely
seen as regrettable that these forces may be acting to dilute the open
nature of universities. That is, hiding information for commercial
reasons is seen to be against the common good, an argument which
particularly applies to government funded institutions."


The issue of open content licenses is addressed in a booklet by Lawrence
Liang with the title "Guide to open content licenses" that can be
downloaded for free as pdf (see URL below). How do the creators of such
research contexts such MITOCW account for copyright? The answers vary
but often include the Creative Commons License. Out of the 16 Creative
Commons Licenses the one that is frequently used only requires the
acknowledgment of the original authors and permits commercial use.


While MIT OCW is a rich and valuable project, some of these more
critical considerations about the perhaps technoromantic rhetoric of the
project should also be brought up at its 5th birthday party. 

Trebor Scholz


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