GPL for Educational Material

Posted to DEOS-L, May 1, 2004

Clint Brooks, who usually treats us with well thought out and considered posts on this list. But his post on the subject of open source educational materials is unfortunately below his usual standards. I would like to take a few moments to clarify some of the points he raises and to suggest that open source educational materials are, in fact, a viable option.

Clint's main point is summarized in his second paragraph and reiterated throughout his post. "In my thinking," he writes, "there seems to be an artificial disconnect between the open source world... and economic realities." And he writes later, "The greater the disconnect between the market forces that the product will be exposed to, and the individual or company producing them, the greater the opportunity for products that have little value in the marketplace to continue to be produced."

The assumption behind these statements is that open source is some sort of 'socialism' (Clint actually uses the word in his email) and that it subsists through government subsidy. This argument then puts him into a position to respond with the usual arguments against socialism: that it distorts market conditions, that the quality of the material may be variable, and even that it is more authoritarian than democratic (and again, he actually uses these words).

The presumption that Clint makes, and it is an incorrect presumption, is that marketplaces consist entirely and only of commercial goods exchanged for financial compensation. This is not the case, and it can be shown that open source content, despite being distributed without cost, is a part of the marketplace, and hence subject to the same maket forces as other content. Or, it should be said, this would be the case were commercial producers willing to allow open source content access to the market in the first place.

We already have an example to reason from, that being the case of open source software. It is worth noting at the outset that while Clint's argument hinges largely on the assumption that open source content is government funded, in fact the development and distribution of open source software has been almost entirely the product of the private sector (albeit not the commercial sector, until recently). Very little public money has ever been spent on the development of open source software, and yet the community has produced such viable products as the Apache web server and the Linux operating system, to name but two items.

By contrast, it is worth noting that almost the entire content of the commercial educational publishing industry is produced through public support and subsidy. The professors who write academic papers, books and texts, along with other material, do so from their college and university offices, sometimes during their tenure year, sometimes in addition to the classes they teach. For the most part, these authors receive little or no money for the production of these materials, and the government, which paid for their research and writing, receives none. The material is collected by publishers and converted into commercial content which is then sold back to these same governments and universities.

On the one hand, the proposal to support open source educational content may be seen as an effort to eliminate this middleman, thus eliminating a large part of the cost of producing and distributing academic materials. Simply eliminating the middleman, while leaving the status quo otherwise, would produce the result Clint describes: a system whereby free educational materials are paid for with public support, just as is the case now, without payment for printing and distribution, which are no longer needed in an electronic age.

But on the other have, the call for open source educational materials is something more fundamental, and something much more responsive to market forces. It is, in essence, a call to open the marketplace to free materials.

Open the marketplace to free materials.

That's it. There is nothing more or less sinister in the open source educational materials movement than that. It is in fact exactly the opposite to what Clint was claiming, hardly the sort of central state educational material administration bureau he was talking about, but rather, the proposal that free content and commercial content ought to compete in the same arena for the same readership.

Right now, as I briefly mentioned above, the educational marketplace is closed to free materials, and becoming increasingly so. Very little, if any, of a student's recommended readings are from free sources. Students browsing through journal indices online or in the catalogues will find only the commercial version. My observation as publishers move increasingly into the online space is that they demand increasingly closed and restrictive content environments. Learning management systems do not syndicate into their content libraries free materials, only publishers' 'course packs'. For the most part, publication in a free journal, or the production of free materials, no matter how well received in the community, are not considered for promotion and tenure. To be sure, there are exceptions to all of these, but by and large the producer of free materials is locked out of the educational marketplace, the consumer provided only with the choice of commercial product.

Even if nothing else changed, opening the marketplace to free materials would be an improvement. To be sure, just as the government mostly funds the commercial materials, it would begin to fund free materials, as authors opted to take this path. Some of these government-funded free materials would compete successfully with the government-funded commercial materials provided by publishers. There would very likely be an impact on their business. However, if it is true (and it probably is) that the commercial charges represent an added value, then commercial materials would most likely remain of higher quality.

Except, if you open the marketplace to free materials, everything else does not stay equal. It creates an opportunity for many more people to get into the marketplace, and as a consequence, material from a wide range of sources is now being contributed. In addition to the traditionally government funded materials, authors and experts from outside the university system are now in a position to contribute. Very likely there would be contributions of free materials from corporations, foundations, and other organizations currently locked out of the process. This is exactly what happened in the open source community, a community where the deluge of content became so much that no government support was required at all.

We turn, of course, to the question of quality. One of the most significant aspects of an open marketplace is that determinations of quality are now subjected to a much wider review process. Where before it took only the convincing of a small editorial board, once the marketplace is opened up materials will become successful only is they receive wide acclaim. While redundancy (called 'forking' in the open source community) persists, the differences between materials are clearly identifiable and usually widely debated. And into this mix commercial content may also contribute, adding value in places where open source materials are weak.

Yes, it would be hard on established publishers - competing in a genuinely free market is hard, especially after years of record profits established in a closed market. But it is not impossible: if Microsoft can survive in a world which includes Linux, Elsevier can survive in a world that includes the Public Library of Science. But they have to, like Microsoft, get a lot better, and their prices must reflect the choice of material now available rather than the monopoly position they previously enjoyed. And while comemrcial publishers may complain of the competition being unfairly subsidized, they will not be able to complain too loudly, lest governments and universities decide to charge market prices for the content they currently receive, and publish, for free.

Open source content thrives even in a commercial world because the return on an investment from educational materials is not to be found simply from the markup on the cover price of an individual piece of material. The return on investment is found in social progress, as an educated population is also healthier, more peaceful, and more gainfully employed, all of which saves the government, and society, billions of dollars. The return may also be on the goodwill or trust generated by open content: just as people can establish a reputation, and eventual employment, by contributing to lists like DEOS, so also the creation of quality learning materials may result in secondary gains. Free content is often and will more so in the future be used to promote higher-value products, such as consulting sevrices, tutoring, or even hardware or other material goods. Instead of the simply 'user pay' business model forced on us by the close commercial publishing market, the open source model enables a wide range of potential business models.

Finally, there is the question of the public good promoted by open source content, the desire to produce something of value for those unable to otherwise afford it, with no expectation of reward whatsoever. This is a much stronger motivation than proponents of commercial materials are willing to admit, and yet in the face of massive volunteer organizations and charities, granting agencies and foundations, and even some forms of public service, it seems evident that there would be a certain percentage of people willing, eager, even, to contribute simply for the public good.

The open source movement, in both content and software, is about free markets. If that makes it socialist, then call me a socialist.

Footnote from the Moderator

It was his generous contributions to this and other discussion lists that propelled Dr. Guy Bensusan from obscurity in northern Arizona to national and international recognition. During my tenure as group moderator I have seen a similar effect in the lives of many of my colleagues - indeed in my own. Many now prominent distance educators have established their 'voices' in online communities by freely sharing their knowledge and expertise with anyone who has asked questions and sought advice (and incidentally with those who don't). Intellectual content is the medium of exchange and those who share their best, graciously and freely, earn the highest status and regard - without ever thinking in those terms. - drmauri

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