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

William C Uricchio uricchio at MIT.EDU
Thu Apr 6 13:31:06 EDT 2006

A quick response from inside MIT (but by no means for MIT).  One can twist and
turn on the power implications of giving or not, but issues of hierarchy seem
to have their roots in a far more extensive array of discourses than OCW and
seem only marginally affected by this particular 'gift'.  By 'giving away' our
course outlines (and in some cases, course content), we are consistent 
with the
longer academic tradition of 'giving' papers.  Although the institution faces
the realities of late capitalist economic pressures, many of us in the 
world still enjoy the benefits of tenure and the freedom to pursue our
intellectual interests.  'Giving' our work in this way (which 
admittedly is not
the same as giving the world an MIT education, for I'm not at all sure 
what that
would look like or how it would be possible) simply makes good sense.  One of
the unmentioned benefits for MIT is that by making our course content
available, we're under a certain and very public pressure to keep our courses
on the cutting edge.  It's hard to sit on one's laurels.

Regarding the weak presence of media courses in MIT-OCW's otherwise robust
listing of courses, there is a reason.  Copyright.  I teach in the Comparative
Media Studies program <www.comparativemediastudies.org> and together with many
of my colleagues, am reluctant to reduce my courses to words on the screen or
to simply posting a syllabus.  We do a lot of innovative research on media
literacy, on games, multi-media learning environments, etc., in 
addition to the
usual array of media forms (the book, photography, film, digital 
culture).  This
work moves across textual forms and involves images and sounds.  The task of
clearing rights legally is nearly impossible, and so we've been encouraging
MIT's lawyers to lead the fight for the educational and fair use of such
materials in the context of OCW.  Unfortunately, for a variety of 
reasons, they
refuse, leaving us with the simple choice of reducing our courses to words on
the screen or doing nothing.  We've taken a third route, and continue to
research and develop the media space and focus on off-line outreach.

OCW is a terrific initiative.  Yes, it has a few conceptual bugs, but it
continues quickly to evolve and innovate.  Let's hope that colleagues at other
institutions see the broader benefits of such an approach and make their
materials available as well -- and let's work towards a fundamental reform of
the current repressive IP regime so that the cultural forms of the 20th and
21st centuries can be interrogated and understood and not simply commodified.

Quoting Trebor Scholz <trebor at thing.net>:

> 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
> critics?
> <http://ocw.mit.edu/index.html>
> 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.
> <http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb/Global/AboutOCW/Translations.htm>
> 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?
> <http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=10609>
> 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."
> <http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue6_6/newmarch/index.html#n6>
> 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
> openness.
> <http://ww.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1254/is_4_34/ai_87869064>
> 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."
> <http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2006/ocw.html>
> <http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=10609>
> <http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb/Global/AboutOCW/about-ocw.htm>
> 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).
> <http://gb-server.mit.edu/search?restrict=ocw&site=mit&output=xml_no_dtd
> &client=mit&__EVENTTARGET=&btnG.y=0&btnG.x=0&proxystylesheet=http%3A%2F%
> 2Focw.mit.edu%2FOcwWeb%2Fsearch%2Fgoogle-ocw.xsl&__EVENTARGUMENT=&q=
> media+art&image.x=0&image.y=0>
> 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.
> <http://h2o.law.harvard.edu/index.jsp>
> <http://cnx.org/>
> "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."
> <http://www.nyu.edu/classes/siva/>
> 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.
> <http://pzwart.wdka.hro.nl/mdr/research/lliang/>
> <http://pzwart.wdka.hro.nl/mdr/pubsfolder/opencontentpdf>
> 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
> <http://collectivate.net/journalisms/2006/4/6/5-years-of-mit-open-
> courseware-and-the-proceeds-of-openness.html>
> _______________________________________________
> iDC -- mailing list of the Institute for Distributed Creativity 
> (distributedcreativity.org)
> iDC at bbs.thing.net
> http://mailman.thing.net/cgi-bin/mailman/listinfo/idc
> List Archive:
> http://mailman.thing.net/pipermail/idc/

More information about the iDC mailing list