Archive for March 2010

Open Universities?

March 19, 2010

With growing concern in the United States about the cost, accessibility and quality of education, it may be useful to consider a recent trend in American Universities: many professors now publicly ‘share’ video of their lectures, opening their courses to anyone with internet access, rather than only to paying, enrolled students. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published a great story about this.

Personally, as a lecturer myself, I imagine having my lectures taped and shared would make me self-conscious in practice, which might cause me anxiety or help me improve my lectures. It certainly might make professors accountable to a broader public, and help “peer review” their claims. It is also appealing in theory to consider the ethic of open-source teaching, which could push the conventional limits of public education. I have always found that colleges and universities are places where the ethic of an intellectual “commons” is strong; this trend still survives in the age of the corporate university in a somewhat muted form.

I am also a fan and follower of online lectures. The European Graduate School offers many lectures online, and considering their faculty of superstar theorists, this is a unique opportunity to hear from Zizek, Butler, DJ Spooky and a whole slew of continental philosophers, media and cultural theorists, film directors and other media practitioners. John Merriman‘s lectures at Yale in modern European and French history are online. MIT’s Open Course Ware site provides syllabi, assignments, lectures and other media to anyone with a web browser. There must be countless others.

Of course, many universities will worry about harming their bottom line, if prospective students can see lectures without enrolling and paying. Some professors will be uncomfortable, unable or unwilling to share their lectures. No matter how the “classroom” or the price of textbooks and materials might change in the internet era, it remains the case that students who want a credentialed degree will have to enroll and pay. Internet video alone won’t solve a national problem with access to education, rising tuition, failing schools, and so on, but sharing lectures online is already stretching the boundaries of the classroom.

digital books: when it rains, it pours.

March 16, 2010

The recent release of David Shield’s book Reality Hunger: a Manifesto (see here and here) comes on the heels of increasing controversy in Europe over Helene Hegemann’s literary debut Axolotl Roadkill (see here). Hegemann is already caught up in an intellectual property scandal; we’ll see what happens to Shields. Both books take a recombinant, “remix” approach to writing, cobbling together excerpts of other people’s writing with their own bits of text. How very contemporary. The idea of remixing as a unique mode of cultural production and the attendant issues of intellectual property that always seem to follow it have now made it into the book market.

While consumers read literary mash-ups like last year’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, media giants like Amazon, Sony and Barnes & Noble are competing to get the reading public hooked on portable hand-held digital reading devices: Kindle, Reader and Nook. Consequently, the publishing industry is already embroiled in typical efforts to protect corporate property: conflict over ebook file formats and which devices can read which formats, as well as concern over the proliferation of ebooks as a hot commodity for file sharing.

At the same time, but getting less media attention, has been Google’s ongoing commercial/legal negotiation with various publishers, universities and other authorities as they expand the ever-growing Google Books project. The project makes a massive amount of material available to the public, online, much of it for free, but many books and other printed materials are still not fully usable or readable thanks to pressure from publishers.

There are many things that are controversial about Google Books. For one, why should we trust a private corporation with the next generation of media services we would normally expect from public libraries? If Google cuts a deal with publishers, much of the content would likely become pay-to-play – and then, publishers would have some say in the cost and accessibility of their products. Even if Google was committed to keeping user access free and open, other issues might arise, too.

Nicholas Sarkozy, Jean-Noël Jeanneney and others close to the French National Library have argued that Google books will only speed the trend of cultural globalization as Americanization, and place control of books belonging to France’s national “patrimony” in non-French hands. Other times, their line seems to be pan-European. But whether they argue for a French digital library (like Gallica), or a European Union version (like Europeana), the point is to mount a public, European challenge to American corporate digitization projects like Google’s.

These varied anecdotes suggest that we’re witnessing an interesting moment of transformation in books, and in the ways that people talk about, think about, buy and sell, and fight over, books. With so much intellectual content and so much money at stake, this dialogue, now fairly widespread, will only get hotter.