At the precise moment when government agencies should be using available technologies to lower costs and increase access to high quality educational opportunities — at the very moment when that may well be our most pressing public need — California is about to take a giant leap backward by ditching a longstanding rule that protects students in order to promote the use of a technology that restricts access to learning materials, imposes higher costs and shortchanges them. As the San Francisco Chronicle’s education correspondent Nanette Asimov reveals in a disturbing series of recent reports (here, here, and, most alarmingly, here), if a state panel heavily influenced by commercial publishing interests gets the rule change it wants, growing numbers of community college students in California will be required to pay fees to access learning materials they will have no way to keep.
Now, we all know that old-fashioned college textbooks were certainly no bargain. But, believe it or not, these new time-expiring passwords (sometimes called “digital time-bombs”) are far, far worse, particularly for community college students who typically don’t have money to burn.
For starters, when a student buys one of those often over-priced textbooks, at least they get to keep the darn book if they want — or, they can sell it when the class is over. They get something of lasting value. Not so when your fee-based password expires — unless you have a photographic memory. So students will pay outside commercial firms for online textbooks and associated learning materials (and trust me, over time they will pay more and more and more), and when their classes end they will have nothing tangible to show for the money they invested in their learning materials. Likewise, many students — particularly less advantaged students, enroll in a class and must drop it for some reason before the term ends. If they bought a textbook they can usually use it when they re-take the class. Time bomb passwords? Not so much. This is progress? Again, when it comes to taxpayer-supported systems of public education, new technologies should be deployed to increase access, improve quality and lower costs. The technology California is about to throw its rules out to embrace does exactly the opposite and it also insults the very idea of education itself.
Time expiring passwords make it far less likely that students will build a library of essential educational and literary works during their college years, which are supposed to be all about learning. When have you ever met an educated person who owns no books? Although I can understand why some folks want to turn students into walking cash registers they can ring on demand, I do not believe that is the best path forward for our public schools, our students, faculty, communities or country. (and yes, you can tell I am pretty hot about this at the moment, I just can’t believe this latest dumbfounding news out of California).
Longtime readers of this blog know that I’ve often used this space to promote the use of Open Educational Resources (examples are here and here). For more than a decade now, I’ve made the same basic argument: given currently available technologies (including the Internet), public educational institutions should use public education dollars to support teachers and faculty who want to create free, shared public education resources that can be collaboratively improved over time. The Open Educational Resources movement is now a fast-growing global collaborative, involving hundreds of participating educational institutions, thousands of scholars and faculty, and millions of learners. For a variety of reasons (you get to keep your books, the learning materials can be easily customized, they are free, multilingual, more rapidly updated, etc.) the OER movement is already demonstrating better learning outcomes at far lower costs. Despite this important progress, however, and with just a few very notable exceptions (thank you Washington State!), few state systems of education have moved forward in any meaningful way to support the educators leading this noble work.
Instead, in most locales and despite the severe budget challenges so many states now face, an antiquated even outrageous status quo still endures, locked into place by a series of practices and relationships — some clearly corrupting — that harm not only students, but also our economy and ultimately, our country.
The alternative, of course, is to embrace practices associated with the Open Educational Resources movement, as leading educational institutions are already doing everywhere from the United Kingdom to Korea, the Netherlands, and even China.
Faculty have much at stake as well. One path, developing communities of practice around different sets of Open Education Resources for particular classes, respects the professional role of faculty while also offering the system a chance to retain learning fee revenues that could be used to support more adequate levels of compensation. The other path: faculty serve a content and assessment machine controlled by others that slowly turns them into little more than interchangeable proctors.
So the question is: will our government — and California in particular — use available technologies to lower costs and increase access to high quality educational opportunities? Or will our government representatives allow, promote and support applications of technology that enrich special interests, deprofessionalize faculty, and further widen the already toxic gap between the haves and the have-nots?
I will be watching intently in the weeks and months ahead to see how California answers that question, on which, I firmly believe, its very future depends.