Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Steal this Lecture

The News and Observer reported that an NCSU professor has been asked to stop selling his lectures as online downloads. Interestingly, the university was not contesting whether the professor owned the rights to his lectures -- they affirmed that he did own the copyright to his own material. They were worried that he might have a conflict of interest, if he is making money on material that students expected to have already been covered by tuition costs. At least, that's what they are saying . . .
I am fascinated by this development because for the last five years I have been predicting the coming of the "rock-star professor," an educational free agent who will generate syndicated multi-media interactive content (what in ancient days was called a "class") used by many more institutions or individuals than a single teacher could previously reach in the traditional classroom fashion. Such an evolution in higher education would create a competitive market for good teaching, something often shockingly lacking in colleges and universities. An engineering grad student once told me: "This is probably the only professional job one can get with absolutely no training. I have zero preparation to teach." Nor does anyone have an economic interest in teaching him: the pay is comparable to unskilled labor.
In the case of Dr. Schrag, it looks like the university is trying to side-step the legal question of ownership, but still frames up the question in the status-quo assumption that the university is the seller of the education, not the professor. He is being told he can't sell it to his students because they already bought it . . . in the form of tuition to the school. Given the ever-mounting costs of college tuition, I can see why students might object to being nickeled and dimed . . . but it's hardly without precedent. When I was in school, professors routinely created course packs, photocopied materials of articles, reprints, and original material made specifically for the course. They were printed at Kinkos, and sold to students. It was just another textbook to buy, that's all. And at the price of $2.50 per lecture, his entire course could be had for $80, which is not uncommon for a textbook. (Ahhh, textbooks . . . that's another racket I would love to see undermined by a truly free market.)
When the university officials say "we just need a little time to look at the issue closely and sort everything out," what I hear them saying is: "look, you're going to create a lot of confusion in the marketplace. You're opening the door to people buying from you instead of us. Our whole branding message as a university will be shot if you start offering a la carte lectures. More importantly, that's our action. Hands off."
But the day is coming, mark my words. When a better-quality product can be had online for a fraction of the cost the universities charge, the market will there. The universities will get into the education syndication business, lending their branding to such efforts . . . or they will get run over by it.

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