Republished from UXforGood.org.
Recently I’ve participated in brainstorming session for a premier university in Korea on how to make its lectures available online.
Ever since MIT started offering its lectures through its OpenCourseWare (website) initiative in late 2002, many higher education institutions have been offering lectures online through various channels: YouTube and iTunes just to name the obvious.
The YouTube Effect
The explosive popularity of sharing sites such as YouTube seems to have radically changes the way we consume media.
Part of the popularity of YouTube lies in the ease in which you can “take” video, hosted on YouTube, and embed it on your site. This is no trivial change. Previously content was a guarded commodity. Some readers my remember that in the early days of the internet, “deep linking” (linking to a page other than the homepage) was a controversial issue, which seems almost comical in today’s internet environment. Others devised ways of keeping users on their website as long as possible, and only allowed consumption of their content on the site.
With the rise of user-generated content, and the legal framework that Creative Commons affords in terms of copyright protection, the line between between the ownership/authorship of content hosted on such content sharing sites as Youtube, Flickr, SlideShare and to some degree digg are being blurred.
YouTube really doesn’t distinguish between the content being on their site or your site. This is important in that it recognizes that is is impossible to neatly categorize the content and it is transferring that burden of organization, categorization and contextualization of the content to users themselves. YouTube has so much content that it cannot (and does not) predict how users will use the content on its site. They leave it up to the users to contextualize it by embedding in their sites. A funny video of a cat may be just cute entertainment on someone’s personal site, whereas it could be a serious example of feline behavior on an academic site. YouTube is saying, we provide you easy access to the content, you provide the context.
David Weinberger writes a whole book on this issue. In Everything is Miscellaneous he writes:
We are building an ever-growing pile of smart leaves that we can organize as we need to at any one moment. Some ways of organizing it – of finding meaning in it – will be grassroots; some will be official. Some will apply to small groups; some will engender large groups; some will subvert established groups. Some will be funny; some will be tragic. But it will be the users who decide what the leaves mean.
Allowing users to take the content is supremely smart for YouTube in that it significantly increases distribution and now that they have figured out a way to advertise within the video frame, a greater source of advertising income.
TED is using this exact model for spreading its ideas.
Shifting role of universities
Back to universities. For universities this climate of content sharing sets up a dilemma.
Universities as an institution have long been in the business of guarding its knowledge and the authors of its knowledge. Whenever you partner with a university the intellectual property contracts their legal department send you is a strong indication of how serious they are about their knowledge. It’s apparent that some knowledge needs to be protected, such as patents, processes and original works. But in this current age, being too strict about protecting knowledge has the negative effects. Universities are not measured in terms of how many books their libraries house but how effective they are in encouraging, facilitating and protecting open discourse, thought leadership and, more so than ever, social responsibility.
Liz Coleman, the president of Bennington College in her inspiring presentation at TED (Feb 2009), A call to reinvent liberal arts education, expresses the urgency of our higher education institutions to be more open, interconnected and socially responsible:
The progression of today’s college student is to jettison every interest except one. And within that one, to continually narrow the focus. Learning more and more about less and less. This, despite the evidence all around us of the interconnectedness of things. Lest you think I exaggerate, Here are the beginnings of the A-B-Cs of anthropology. As one moves up the ladder, values other than technical competence are viewed with increasing suspicion. Questions such as “What kind of a world are we making? What kind of a world should we be making? What kind of a world can we be making?” are treated with more and more skepticism and move off the table.
To share or not to share?
When one thinks about how to describe the premier universities in Korea, words such as exclusivity, high-walled, academic, authoritative and conservative come to mind. This is clash with the values of the internet that shout social, communal, accessible and collaborative.
The motivation behind a premier university in Korea sharing its lectures online seems may seem to be a little more self-serving than socially inspiring: To reinforce it branding and positioning; to create a business model for paid exclusive content; and to provide some public service.
Whatever the motivation, I believe that once the door to access is opened up, it may unintentionally trigger a change that may be irreversible.
Update: Fast Company: How Web-Savvy Edupunks Are Transforming American Higher Education is worth reading on this issue.