SFGate031

Big Idiot on Campus UC should broadcast class lectures online


Hal Plotkin, Special to SF Gate
Wednesday, October 28, 1999

URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/technology/archive/1999/10/27/lecturenotes.dtl

Earlier this month, a lawyer representing the University of California system demanded that several Internet companies, such as Study24-7.com, Versity.com, and StudentU.com, pull lecture notes covering UC classes from their websites.

UC’s lawyer says the lecture notes contain intellectual property owned by professors or colleges, are often inaccurate and incomplete and that selling or using them constitutes a form of cheating.

I think UC is barking up the wrong tree by trying to shut down the websites. In the age of the Internet, official embargoes on information don’t work. Free flows of information are what the Internet is all about. As information circulates, previously unimaginable opportunities, both personal and economic, take shape.

Thanks to the Internet, information that was previously dispensed only for large fees, everything from medical research findings to documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, are now more freely available.

In every sector, new businesses are using these newly freed-up information resources to create entirely new products and services. The result is an unprecedented economic boom.

The same thing could happen in our educational system. The UC system could make the lecture-note companies irrelevant by allowing the free Internet broadcasting and archiving of all UC course lectures. Not only would all students get access to the original lectures on which the notes are based, the rest of us would also be able to tap into scholarly resources formerly shared with only a chosen few.

But first, UC’s leaders will have to abandon their current line of old-fashioned thinking.

Take, for example, UC’s charge that online note-posting violates the intellectual property rights of professors and schools. The last time I checked, we taxpayers were footing nearly all the bills for the UC system.

The tenured professors we hire get one of the cushiest jobs on the planet. They don’t have to punch a clock, they get generous benefits, graduate students do most of their scut work and they usually can’t be fired for anything less than premeditated murder.

In return, the public has a right to expect open access to their classrooms. In the past, this was impossible. But today, UC lectures could be broadcast over the Internet for a mere pittance. There are no doubt companies who would be willing to do the job for free.

That’s not to say college professors give up all rights to any intellectual property. They can still write books, collect royalties and sue others for plagiarism if and when it occurs. But they don’t own what goes on in a public classroom. That, like a speech by a public official, is everyone’s business.

It will probably take some time before UC officials come around on this point. The services offered by online note-posting companies are, admittedly, a poor substitute for official Internet broadcasts of class lectures. However, if given a chance to develop, these companies will fill at least some of the online vacuum created by UC’s unwillingness to step more boldly into the present.

Take, for example, UC’s argument that students need to be protected from inaccurate notes. The Internet has already spawned several very effective tools that help Internet users assess the relative merits of items found online.

In fact, this area, known as comparative shopping, has already emerged as one of the hottest online business sectors. Many online companies, from well-known players like eBay.com, to start-ups like Epinions.com, offer services that help web surfers verify the credentials and claims made by people doing business online.

The same thing will undoubtedly happen with online lecture notes. You know how quickly fashion trends spread on campus. It won’t take long before students figure out which online lecture note companies have the goods and which ones don’t. Over time, the best individual note-takers will build a following while others fall by the wayside.

The moral argument that sees online notes as a form of cheating is even more troubling. Those holding that view say students should all obtain information covered in class the same way, by sitting through lectures regardless of whatever else is going on in their lives.

Those of us who worked our way through college know that missing classes is often not a matter of choice. Working students can, for example, be hit with a sudden rent increase that requires additional hours on the job, car breakdowns that make getting around on time more difficult or even impossible, or family pressures that can’t be ignored. Students faced with such choices are not cheating when they take advantage of note-takers.

The real solution, however, is for UC to more fully join the age of the Internet by broadcasting all lectures. Officially enrolled students are not the only ones who will benefit if that happens. Instead, it will create a cascade effect.

Immediately, it will become easier to weed out educational impostors, professors who get things wrong, who teach outdated material or who insult students through poor preparation. Sunshine is a powerful antiseptic.

In addition, entrepreneurs building distance-learning companies will gain access to a treasure trove of material that can be integrated into their online offerings. Rather than pay people to share knowledge, which most struggling distance-learning companies must now do, the executives running such companies will be able to focus on providing students with the best combinations of material, the most well-rounded educational experiences, drawn from a variety of academic sources.

Letting the private sector loose to make the most of top-notch college-level classroom lectures would be the first shot in what would quickly become an online educational revolution.

A few narrow-minded types at UC won’t welcome the idea. But the truth is it really doesn’t matter if someone learns logic, ethics or math at UC or someplace else. When it comes to building a healthy and prosperous society, what matters more is how many of us get the opportunity to learn.

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