Open Source Academia

by by Annie Macdonald

illustration by by Robert Sandler

On April 4, 2001, a project spearheaded by the then-president of M.I.T., Charles Vest, was announced in the New York Times under the heading “Auditing Classes at M.I.T., on the Web and Free.” The goal of the initiative was to publish lecture notes, problem sets, syllabi, exams, simulations, and even video lectures for nearly all of its 2,000 course offerings on a completely public and freely accessible website. Vest’s undertaking was motivated by a value that is present in many university mission statements—to disseminate knowledge as widely as possible. The site would not provide a degree, but rather access to educational material that had previously been confined to admitted and paying M.I.T. students.

A decade later, Vest’s project, MITOpenCourseWare, currently averages 1 million visits each month—56 percent of which originate outside of North America. The site has been recognized as an invaluable step towards developing a public body of knowledge, and many universities have followed suit, including Yale, Carnegie Mellon and Duke.

A Hacker's Manifesto
It was not a huge surprise that something like this came out of Cambridge, MA, since the very ideals embedded in the production of OpenCourseWare are deeply rooted in the language of a technological movement of the 1950s and ‘60s led by M.I.T. students. A group of self-proclaimed hackers developed and depended on free and open-source codes to further the functionality of room-size IBM computers hidden away in a university building. They developed assemblers to translate instructional language into binary code, debuggers to locate the glitches, and simplified and re-simplified codes to maximize efficiency by minimizing the necessary memory space. They invented the word as it is known today: a hack was defined as a project that was driven by the pleasure of involvement rather than constructive end results; however, this community of mutual sharing, after breaking into some locked doors, got results. The ethic behind this security breach was that access to information and machinery operations should be unlimited and total to allow for user-generated modifications for improvement. This concept has since been furthered and legitimated by looser-copyright (“copyleft”) licensing options offered by Creative Commons, used as a fundamental launching point for exceedingly familiar tools such as the online encyclopedia Wikipedia and web browser Mozilla Firefox.

Though some have hailed these free-information sites for making great strides in dispersing knowledge that was previously limited to collegiate ivory towers, others are not as pleased with the limitless access—especially in the legal arena. The fair use doctrine, which guides the re-use of intellectual property, has been used to challenge the publishing of notes, as it arguably provides a substitution for university enrollment. But, the counterargument goes, an undergraduate education, especially one in liberal arts, has increasingly come to emphasize the value of interpersonal relationships with professors who can provide personal feedback on work, rather than merely providing a direct relay of information.

The more pressing concern lies in the Copyright Act of 1976, which states that a lecture is automatically protected under copyright law if a professor has prepared a tangible expression in the form of notes, an outline, or a script, or documented the class via video or audio recording— meaning professors aren’t required to have patents or other formal disclaimers to protect their work. (This exclusive right becomes rather convoluted by discussion seminars where the format is determined in real time by students and professors alike and any recorded preparations are merely prompts for collaborative dialogue.) The statute was referred to when certain professors at Harvard objected to the publishing of class notes on Finalsclub, a recently formulated version of OpenCourseWare developed by Andrew Magliozzi. With Finalsclub, Magliozzi sought to create an outlet for students at his alma mater to share without relying on a third party for-profit company to assume ownership, such as Study Blue, Cramster, Koofer, and Grade Guru, or ad-hoc materials which are difficult to consolidate and organize.

“I believe that education is founded on the freedom of ideas. We build new knowledge on top of old knowledge. And without freedom and openness of expression it is very difficult to innovate on the idea level. In a sense, education must be open if you want it to be generative—if you want to create new knowledge. I don’t think any professor or academic or scholar would say his or hers ideas come out of a vacuum. Everyone needs to learn in order to teach,” Magliozzi told the Independent. To further the scope of his project, Magliozzi is looking to develop non-proprietary software—including a rewriting of the program, which has been successfully used in conferences to allow attendees to ask questions and post comments that can be voted up or down in priority while being viewed on a screen at the front of the classroom—harnessing the tendency for side conversation during lectures.

Free as in Free Speech, Not as in Free Beer
Magliozzi’s project, although not recognized by Harvard, has been granted status as a 501(c)(3) non-profit and has recently received funding from the Will and Flora Hewlett Foundation to the tune of $150,000. Though the objective in open source is to make information, software, and culture freely accessible and usable, that does not mean that it is free to produce. Funding can come in the form of donations, in which case the project retains its sharing economy through and through, or it must develop into a hybrid by involving mechanisms of commerce, usually through forms of advertisement or selective pay-in features. These politics of labor, (often ignored to prioritize the ideals of community and collaboration in open-source production) do point to the benefits of copyright legislation. When a copyright clause was included in the US Constitution, Thomas Jefferson espoused the author’s right to compensation so as to incentivize innovative production that allows for ‘the progress of science and the useful arts’—a benefit to all of society. This tenuous balancing act between the private and public good is still extremely relevant today.

The professors protesting at Harvard have since been appeased by an instantaneous email alert that is sent when their class is added to the site, giving the ability to opt out and have the notes removed. The claims that Finalsclub breached their intellectual property rights or that the public platform would disturb the intimacy of their classroom were recognized as valid—even though Magliozzi doesn’t agree with them. Another concern, presented by a Harvard professor of English, Amanda Claybaugh, to The Chronicle, was that the quality of the student notes published on the site compromised the information she delivered. Yet this content concern could probably be alleviated by more time and attention given by users to the open-sourced editing feature of the site and with the development of a comprehensive rating system.

Harvard professors have recently received another alternative for making their work available—DASH, an open access repository of research that would make the mediated student notes less appealing. The problem, however, with substituting OpenCourseWare variations with a free online research journal written by professors is the accessibility of the language; this work is not written with the student in mind, but rather to build a reputation with colleagues and peer reviewers in order to be eligible for tenure.

Democratic Education
The Free School Movement offers another variation of open academia, insofar as it opens up educational decision-making to all levels to the student body. Based on the model of the Summerhill School of Suffolk, England, founded in 1921, these schools “emphasi[ze] learning as a natural product of all human activity. They assume that the free market of ideas, free conversation, and the interplay of people provide sufficient exposure to any area that may prove relevant and interesting to individual students” (“Democratic Education”, Wikipedia). In this self-reflexive sphere, anything can be put up for debate, including the role of adults, evaluation, rules and human rights. As one might expect, a significant amount of time is often devoted towards play—encouraged within the framework as an essential component of social learning but regarded from the outside as excessive leniency.

Self-imposed responsibility for students is also an issue when it comes to the intention of the user of OpenCourseWare-like sites. The fear is that this access will be used as a crutch for students who want to skip class or save time, instead of serving as a supplement to individual engagement with the material. Though this is a legitimate apprehension, it is important to recognize that this potential for the evasion of schoolwork has always existed in some capacity. The real progress here is the opening up of information to non-collegiate users who could make use of this leverage to self-learn and teach in areas off campus. The question remains: how long will students continue to voluntarily subsidize their own college education for the common good? Magliozzi believes that the motivation for student participation in Finalsclub up to this point is “altruism—but altruism alone is a necessary but not sufficient component for doing this on a large scale, so we need something more. Something more in my perspective is a novel way of collaborating and communicating within education, which I think we have our finger on the pulse of.”