OpenCourseWars Deleted Scenes

You know those “deleted scenes” offered on DVDs? Well, this page is the collection of deleted scenes for my chapter “2005 – 2012: The OpenCourseWars” in the new book Opening Up Education from MIT Press.

Apparently I wrote more material for the chapter than they needed. In the words of Billy Joel’s The Entertainer:

Ah, it took me years to write it
They were the best years of my life
It was a beautiful song
But it ran too long
If you’re gonna have a hit
You gotta make it fit
So they cut it down to 3:05

So, rather than sacrifice the ending of the piece, or leave out things I thought were interesting, I chose to lop several sections off the front of the history. Below are the first four sections of the history from my early drafts. I offer them here for your sci-fi / historical-fiction-written-from-the-future reading pleasure.

Talking about the OpenCourseWars chapter

MIT OCW and the OCW Consortium

Shortly after the launch of MIT OpenCourseWare, MIT began an effort to recruit other “top” universities into the OpenCourseWare Consortium (OCWC). In the early days of the information age, when information literacy was low even in the developed world, name brands like MIT and Yale were the only proxies for quality many people had as they made decisions. (Keep in mind that movies, TV, and magazines were still telling people how to dress and how much they should weigh at this point.) Either way, not many years after the Consortium’s launch, many of the top universities around the world had launched similar initiatives and joined the OCWC. Each and every one of them followed MIT’s lead in adopting the Creative Commons Attribution, Noncommercial, ShareAlike (By-NC-SA) license, although they were technically free to choose any open license.

During this period the number of courses shared by OCW projects outside MIT passed the number of courses shared by MIT OCW. This was a huge event for the field, and did surprisingly little to affect the amount of influence MIT enjoyed among the OCW schools. They had been first, after all, and would continue to be seen as the leaders of the OCW movement well beyond the scope of time covered by this chapter. While the reader may not count Utah State University with MIT, Yale, University of Tokyo, and other “name brand” universities, we had an OpenCourseWare during this period as well . It was during this period that I first felt that there was trouble on the horizon with regard to our licenses, and that we changed most of the courses in USU OCW from By-NC-SA to just By-SA.

The MIT OCW project and the OCW Consortium gave many schools, organizations, and individuals that could never have collaborated with MIT on any another project the opportunity to do so. Translation partners for MIT OCW continued to emerge from different regions of the world, voluntarily translating MIT’s English language materials into other languages. And almost every new non-English OCW provided two sets of OpenCourseWares – their native language version and an English version – in order to “get a seat at the table” in the Consortium. Whether this was necessary or not, I know firsthand that the perception was there among the non-US schools. Even the French OCWs, who weren’t participating in the Consortium as actively as many others during this period, provided English versions of some of their French materials. Much was said behind closed doors about the great tradition of “Western Imperialism.” OCW was even compared to the famous Trojan Horse and made out as a vehicle for bringing Western pedagogies, ideas, and language into a variety of cultural settings where these would otherwise have been unwelcome. It worried me.

Utah, the Legislature, and OCW

The first statewide initiative emerged during this period, as well. We had conversations with people from the Utah Centers for Applied Technology, Weber State University, Utah Valley State College, Brigham Young University, the University of Utah, and other Utah schools and asked if they would share their courses as part of a “Utah OCW Alliance” (UOCWA). Everyone responded favorably, and the work progressed slowly until the winter of 2007. Representative Urquhart from St. George put a wiki online that he called Politicopia. He asked for comments on pending legislation and new ideas Utahns thought were interesting. I described OCW on the wiki, and in later emails suggested that USU OCW and the struggling UOCWA would be a good place to put a little money. By the end of February, barely two months later, the Utah Legislature had become the first in the country to fund OpenCourseWare – to the tune of $200,000 dollars.

The Utah OpenCourseWare Alliance (UOCWA) website aggregated courses from across the Utah schools and marketed itself as the place where Utah taxpayers could get something back for the tax dollars they put into higher education. The site enjoyed modest success with Utahns, and even garnered a few public mentions during the 2008 election cycle.

Of particular historical interest is a town hall meeting held by the Governor during the elections, in which a computer science student from the University of Utah student asked why the state wasn’t doing more to encourage state-funded universities to participate in the UOCWA. The Governor answered that since this kind of sharing of course materials was easily possible in the information age, and because the taxes paid by the citizens of Utah were supporting the state’s public universities, he felt that schools should receive more encouragement to participate. The Utah Legislature set aside $350,000 for the UOCWA in the 2008-2009 budget – an amazing feat given the budgetary climate, but only $35,000 per public institution of higher education.

Google Enters and then Leaves the Game

I can only speculate as to the why of what happened next. Personally, I believe that a University of Utah Computer Science professor made contact with a former PhD advisee who had taken a job at Google. Others say it was just Google being their opportunistic selves. Regardless of why, though, Google announced that it would extend its university partnerships for book digitization into university courses. Google offered $500,000 of course development support to any university that would make a commitment to put 500 of its courses into an OCW-like repository with a CC By-NC-SA license and give Google an exemption to the NC clause. This meant that Google would be able to use the materials for internal training and other purposes, while other corporations would not.

Mostly people were just outraged. Pundits like David Noble were instantly back on their horses decrying the interference of private industry in academia. Google pointed out that their corporate mission was simply to enable all people to access all information. They were supporting projects to digitize books, weren’t they? They were digitizing back issues of academic research journals, weren’t they? Why should this be any different, except that there would be no copyright problems with the opencoursewares? After all, the logic went, surely educational information is some of the most important information they could help people find.

The UNESCOs, aid agencies, and NGOs of the world were uncomfortable but weren’t quite sure why. University administrators knew exactly why they were uncomfortable. They quickly pointed out that MIT had spent on the order of $29 million putting less than 2000 courses into opencourseware. Google responded that they felt like $1000 per course was enough to provide a great stipend to some web-savvy undergraduates, that eduCommons exists now whereas MIT had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on infrastructure, and that if a university didn’t feel like it could get the project done for $1000 per course then they shouldn’t apply for a grant. I was flattered to see eduCommons mentioned so prominently. But I have to admit that I was a little uncomfortable, too.

The small schools went first. Many of them had fewer courses in their catalog and already offered courses or degrees in multimedia development. They parceled out most of the course development as senior capstone projects and independent studies (meaning that students actually paid tuition to build the courses), and the schools put as much as half of the grant into their operating budgets at a time when many colleges and departments had been running on empty. It was a Godsend for the small schools.

The medium-sized schools were in a real pickle now. Most of the “premier” institutions had already developed OCWs; many had done so with financial support from the Hewlett Foundation and other donors. Now the smaller schools had OCWs as well. The academic literature was filling up with articles about the benefits of these projects (lower drop rates among students because they could preview courses before enrolling, better ties with alumni since they could always come back to review class material, etc.). Google realized the medium-sized schools had no choice but to launch their own OCW initiatives. Since they “weren’t needed” to catalyze the development of OCWs anymore, Google announced they would no longer be providing the grants.

OCW Goes to Washington

This was a dark time for the state schools and other mid-sized colleges. Huge pressure from students, parents, alumni, and their communities forced them to make excuses about why they weren’t providing the same level of service to their stakeholders. Analysts went back to the language of “transparency” and “accountability” from the 2006 Commission on the Future of Higher Education in their criticisms of the state schools. This was yet another example of their inability to innovate and keep pace with the “real world.” I used these same arguments as part of the panel that had testified to the Commission about the importance of openness, but no one seemed to hear or care in a time when the national higher education policy priority was “No Undergraduate Left Behind” (or “No Academic Freedom Left to Find” as we briefly called it).

In the most unbelievable part of the history of openness in education (for me as a native West Virginian, anyway), West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd announced that his current term in office would be his last. (I think he was like 108 at this point.) His final piece of legislation would be a third Morrill Act that would support the land grant institutions in creating OCW-like projects to provide increased access to educational opportunity to the general public. The so-called “Byrd Bill” passed, creating a small pot of dedicated monies for public schools to draw on in order to support their OCW initiatives.

Congress had turned their back on the publishing industry, or so it seemed. Everyone waited for the publishing industry backlash, but it never came. It was like the silence in a horror movie just before the guy with the chainsaw jumps around the corner – when you suddenly realize the music has stopped, and all you can hear is breathing. But no chainsaw-wielding publisher ever appeared.

Then it happened all at once.

Courts, Clauses, and Campuses

This is where the history picks up in the OpenCourseWars chapter as it was published. After clicking the link, you’ll want Chapter 16 (beginning on page 247).

Send me your thoughts!

If you enjoyed the chapter, or thought it was completely moronic, or just want to argue about some of its predictions, feel free to drop me an email at [email protected]. Hoping to see you online sometime soon…