(Note: This is a draft of my upcoming BackBurner column in Tech Trends. I’d appreciate your comments.)
In the 1997 film adaptation of Carl Sagan’s Contact, S. R. Hadden teaches Ellie Arroway “the first rule of government spending: why have one when you can have two for twice the price?”
If only! When it comes to curriculum materials like textbooks, practice exercises, test item banks, instructional videos, and online simulations, our government and school districts are more than happy to pay for them again, and again, and a hundred thousand times again, year after year.
This made sense in the days before the advent of the Internet, when students had to compete for access to educational materials. In those days, if Johnny was using the calculator, Jenny had to wait her turn; if Mary was reading the science book, Mark had to wait his turn. Schools needed to purchase a calculator and a science book for each child in school if they wanted each child to have ready access to these resources.
Since the advent of the Internet, the competitive nature of educational materials has disappeared. While Susie is running calculations in the online chemistry laboratory, another million students are using it too; while Johnny is exploring genetics in the online simulator, another million students are too. It’s just like when you read the news on CNN.com while a million other people do, too.
An online educational resource is different from a physical educational resource because every student in the state of Utah can use the same online resource at the same time. We don’t need to buy a copy for every student in the state – one copy is enough for everyone! Yet despite this fact, schools in the state still enter into contracts with commercial online curriculum providers that require them to pay for a “copy” for each and every student. What a waste!
But it gets worse. In the past we took some solace after paying the huge bill for all those calculators and textbooks in knowing that, once we paid for them, third graders could use them for many years to come. Unfortunately for our schools, commercial online curriculum providers don’t sell online curriculum materials to schools – they rent them to schools, generally on a one-year contract. This means that in addition to paying for tens of thousands of copies when only one copy would suffice, we pay for permission to use each of these copies again next year, and pay for them all again the next year, and then again the next…
These commercial online curriculum licenses are perhaps the single biggest waste of taxpayer dollars in all of government spending, and that’s really saying something. Our schools pay for tens of thousands of copies, and pay for them again and again, year after year, when simply producing one copy the state owned would suffice.
Commercial online curriculum providers understand the new economics of creating and distributing digital content via the Internet – that you can create one copy and sell access to it millions of times with no reproduction, warehousing, or shipping costs. These commercial providers take lucrative advantage of the fact that our state governments and school districts do not understand these new economics. And it’s their prerogative to continue to pillage the villagers as long as we remain ignorant.
Rather than remain in the dark about the new economics, our governments and school districts should do their homework for a change, wise up, and use taxpayer dollars to create a collection of online educational resources that the state can pay for once and then own and reuse indefinitely. Understanding and leveraging these new economics to the states – and school districts – advantage will save our cash-starved education systems a significant amount of money that can be redirected into teacher salaries or other worthy areas.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) provide an excellent model. Some years ago they recognized that because taxpayers pay for the research they fund, the results of that research should be freely available to the public. Under the old paradigm, taxpayer money went to NIH, which funded research, which was then published in copyrighted journals, which universities and others had to pay to read. So taxpayers actually paid for this research many times over – once to fund it, and then again and again for every public education institution in their state who subscribed to the journals. And the public still had no access to those research results (since the vast majority of the public are not affiliated with a university).
Rather than continue to waste taxpayer dollars so egregiously, paying for research several times over, the NIH Public Access Policy (which became official in April 2008, also known as the “NIH mandate”) now states that each and every one of the final, peer-reviewed journal manuscripts reporting NIH funded research must be placed in a publicly accessible (free) digital archive (see http://publicaccess.nih.gov/). As a consequence, taxpayers no longer pay multiple times over for access to the results of research they funded in the first place.
Education should take the same path. Any and all curriculum materials whose development is funded with taxpayer dollars should be freely and openly available to the public. We paid for them, they belong to us, and it is nothing short of stupid for a state government or school district to pay for them a second, third, or 500,000th time.