Education is NOT Just the Content Part of it

I can’t believe what I typed in the title, but let me share some reflections I was sharing after reading a Chronicle blog post on Facebook earlier today.

I used to think that one has to be phenomenally stupid to think that a “course” (particularly in the US higher education system) can be “licensed” to a third party to teach it, to think that it can be “sold” like a gallon of milk that the buyer can use it as they like. I used to wonder if these new types of buyers and sellers of education (keen on making money, cutting cost, creating efficiency, etc) define “course” without the “teaching” part in it? I used to be confused if they’re simply talking about videocapturing every minute of the professor talking and call that the “course.” That wouldn’t make a lot of sense at least for anyone trying to “license” any of the courses I teach because they have to also videocapture the interaction with and among a particular/unique group of students I teach in a particular place and time–and then, what, “play” that video for future groups of students?! I thought that if by “course” they were only referring to the syllabus (course description, objectives, reading list, assignment descriptions, and course policies) and schedule, then these are not always original and many professors put them online and they often don’t care who takes and uses them. I borrow and lend syllabi and assignments all the time with colleagues. 
I thought I could just disregard the new brand of educational stupidity because it’s impossible for any of the “course” I teach to be just the syllabus and schedule and NOT *how I engage a given group of students* all in my unique/individualized ways (and then individual students in my office, by email, by Skype and Hangout, by class Facebook and Twitter, by hallway hellos and questions about how that student’s grandmother is doing), adjusting my strategies not only semester by semester, but also minute by minute, every blessed unique student by every blessed unique student before me. I was laughing at the idea because it is impossible for any of the course I teach to be just about content and NOT about *how I pick and focus on–often on the fly–ideas and thoughts* and feelings and emotions and perspectives as it suits the direction in which a given class meeting is taking the conversation on a subtopic that students decide to wonderfully digress into. I used to think it’s about other disciplines because in mine a course can’t be just about the lecture part INSTEAD of *how I constantly calibrate the assignments* and activities and approaches and methods of teaching and learning based on my best judgments and my students’ best judgments about where to skip and where to dip into the content of the course …. I used to think, what the hell do these people mean when they say they want to “license” or “sell” someone’s course without them teaching it? Just the lectures by the teacher, posed for the camera (with no students involved)? 

And then, it hit me, when I read this article, hit me really hard: they will make professors sign a contract in order transfer the intellectual ownership and rights, of whatever they can find, over to someone who can sell, have someone “teach” it, etc, etc — while assuming that the course means the content. And then, here’s the CATCH. You can’t teach, adapt, or build on the ideas and materials you’ve created for the course you teach “for them” once, anymore– and they get to tell you that you’re using “that” course if you try to build your new lectures, activities, assignments, pedagogy based on the one you just sold–well, you didn’t even really “sell” them for a fair price, because no one can tell where the fine line is and because you’r the one who has no expensive lawyers to bank on. Seriously, you could be “sued” for using the materials and ideas that you created over the years in order to teach a course with that title, focus, approach–if someone says you’re selling your gallon of milk twice?! So, it’s basically a land grab, which at first seems to be about the trees in it but someone with money and power will take away your house if they can. It may not be easy, but I would bet on the side that they will try everything they can. 

The other, even more insidious result of such contentization of higher education is this:

Ironically, the result of the increased digital delivery of American higher education could well be a more static, less dynamic model of knowledge transmission—particularly when online courses are seen as a source of revenue savings by cash-strapped campuses.

I encourage you to read the article, here, especially the few paragraphs right after the one that begins thus: “What does that mean for faculty members? The Berkeley Faculty Association consulted an intellectual-property lawyer to find out. This is what we discovered.. . .”

The whole article is really worth reading.

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  1. Beautiful post – breathtaking prose! Have you checked out David Noble’s (2002) Digital Diploma Mills? This is my Noble – the version that I like:
    Best, Sandra

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