October 10, 2004
You ever get the feeling an elephant is sitting in the room and you are one of the few people who can see it?
That’s the experience I was having last year when community leaders and members of the faculty and staff at Silicon Valley’s two community colleges, Foothill College (in Los Altos Hills) and De Anza College (in Cupertino), asked me to run for a seat on their five-member Governing Board of Trustees.
I accepted the invitation, ran, and won. But many people have asked me why I would do such a crazy thing, particularly considering the long meetings, low pay, and general sense of disapprobation that often attaches itself to elected officials.
The answer is that I ran for a reason, not for an office. I saw an elephant in the foyer of the higher education establishment. I had waited patiently for others to recognize it and when that did not happen with the requisite speed I figured I had a chance to do something about it.
I am a journalist and writer, not an educator. But I simply could not believe that higher education insiders were not moving more rapidly to use the Internet to fight back against the unconscionably high prices millions of eager students around the world must pay for current, high-quality textbooks.
I wrote my first column about a partial solution to this problem in 2001, shortly after it became practical. In a nutshell, the idea is to organize and use public domain materials to create durable, permanent and constantly evolving alternatives to costly textbooks.
Public domain materials are those whose copyrights have either expired, not been renewed, or which were not copyrighted in the first place because their authors wanted to make them freely available. They include books, songs, maps, drawings, plays and virtually any other product of the human imagination. All math textbooks published before 1923, for example, are now in the public domain as are many published after that date. (I use math as an example just because it is one of the fields where old documents can still be current, correct and valuable. In 1923 two plus two equaled four. Last time I checked, it still does, which means many old math books are still relevant today, although the way the material is presented often needs to be reconfigured and updated to make it competitive with current commercial products).
The advent of the Internet made it easier to locate and archive public domain materials, which several groups are now doing. Meanwhile, schools such as MIT and others started encouraging their faculty members to put the materials they use in their classes online for others to use freely, either as public domain materials or with some rights reserved under terms outlined by the free intellectual property licenses offered online by the non-profit organization Creative Commons.
Taken together, these developments have created a mountain of free intellectual property at least some of which can be fashioned into substitutes for textbooks, not only for college students, who are often financially hard-pressed, but also for students at any other level. Surely, I thought, the higher education establishment would quickly seize on this dramatic new opportunity.
But I was wrong.
In fact, I’m not aware of any colleges or schools that have a formal policy or program to provide meaningful support or assistance to faculty members who want to develop and use public domain materials as substitutes for textbooks, despite the years that have passed since doing so became possible. Sure, there is lots of stuff in the public domain, with more appearing each day. But who is organizing the material, mapping or adapting it to fit specific courses, maintaining it, judging it for quality, or supervising a collabrative process to continually improve it?
That’s one of the main reasons I agreed to stand for election to the Foothill-De Anza Community College District Governing Board. I saw a chance to champion a new type of investment in public education. In the past, supporters of higher education have worked hard to build university endowments, modernize campus environments, hire more qualified faculty and increase their pay. But we now have a chance to do something more, namely to create free or virtually free learning materials. Organizing this material and making it available over the Internet would directly assist students at our colleges and around the world. The thought that kept running thru my head (and which still does): “Imagine how the world might change and what could happen next if there is a free state-of-the-art physics text, or math text, or chemistry text…”
I’ve been on the Board for a little less than a year now, and I am pleased to report that we are nearing the adoption of a new Policy on Public Domain Materials. We expect the final hearing on this new policy and its enactment before the end of this year.
In short, the policy asks our administration to find ways and resources to encourage faculty members to organize and use public domain materials in place of textbooks. We’ve left the specifics about exactly how to do this up to the capable administrators at both colleges, with progress reports coming to our Board at least once a year. The package of incentives and related programs to accomplish this objective has not yet been finalized but it might include release time for faculty so they can prepare these materials, awards and recognition for the best sets of public domain learning materials, and tutorials that help faculty members identify useful public domain resources in their fields.
The overall goal is to come up with sets of public domain materials that can continue to evolve and that draw in collaborators who teach in the same areas of study. My fondest hope is that one day millions of students around the world will have free access to these materials and that fewer motivated learners will be held back because they can’t afford to pay for the instructional materials and books they need. Likewise, I want to see the professors and academics who organize these materials get the credit and recognition that will surely come their way once they become known as the stewards of the best and most popular sets of public domain learning materials in their field.
None of this will be easy – nor will it happen fast. But public colleges and universities certainly should provide assistance to faculty members who want to organize public domain learning materials into free or low-cost substitutes for the expensive textbooks used in their classes. After all, what we are really talking about here is using public funds to create a new type of public resource.
The Foothill-De Anza Community College District is about to become the first institution of higher education in the country to formally commit itself to this goal. With any luck, others will soon follow.