In the past, we had libraries. They could be impressive places (depending on the library manager and her budget). They would house all manor of books, audio, slides, video, and archive materials and collections. Generally, anyone could walk into any library and enjoy largely unrestricted access to any of the collection – for free. So long as they respected the house rules of seriousness, quietness and respect for the items, they were always welcome to browse the collection. Even university libraries would allow anyone to browse their collections too. Some universities would even extend that type of access to empty seats in their lecture. It was a social good – or a way of sustaining a level of society.
But then this thing called eLearning started to happen. eLearning spawned from the Internet about the same time as the dot com investment boom started to take hold. University managers found themsleves caught up in this money fever and the conferences they frequented start talking about ways to leverage this boom. Everywhere people started to think money could be made from information and content, and everywhere people started to invest in the developments of systems that would restrict access to portions of the Internet. The term Intellectual Property started to become popular in unversities! It was a dark time indeed.
The Internet started to split. On one path was the open, distributed, networked (The Web). On the other was the closed, centralised, and delivered (Darknet). Universities went the closed route, on the hunt for more money with the dream of thousands more students, all paying to study from somewhere else and at their own convenience/expense.
Many software developers directed their attention to projects around Content Management Systems (CMS) – largely to serve an inflated dot com market. Developers inside universities modified the CMS to make Learning Management Systems LMS). The universities accessed and spent millions of $ of public money, developing content for their new LMSs. They used this money to create the equivalent of whole new text books, activities, student handbooks, and fancy new media. But instead of housing these shiny new resources in their libraries where traditionally anyone could access and use them, they housed them in their Learning Management Systems, which were designed to restrict access. That access was of course restricted to those who would pay. To access these wonderful new collections, people had to first show they were a paid up and enrolled students – society as a whole would have to miss out. Libraries said nothing because they knew nothing.
The libraries by and large, never saw much of that money that was poured into eLearning. It was swallowed up by new and powerful departments called IT. How these departments could be seen as anything but the core responsibility of a library is just another strange thing in all this story. As a result of this passing over, liraries are what they are today – broken and disconnected, struggling to find relevance. They had a few sporadic and half arsed attempts to scan and digitise the older collections of the library, but they never really had access to the same amounts of money that was made available for eLearning. Digitising library collections was seen as too expensive, especially if the libraries were going to continue to allow anyone to walk in and browse or borrow.
I see MITs Open Courseware as a first step in a return to the traditional social values and responsibilities of the university. It is a first step with a clear head, and now with a few more steps – largely around getting copyright and formats right, we might imagine a university very relevant to its glocal society. Not universities that design technology for restricting access to information and learning, but universities that leverage existing technology to give greater access for many more, at very little extra cost (relative to eLearning), and evidently no loss.
The dot com era has passed, the managers are slowly learning of their mistakes, and a new motivation is taking hold. One of social sustainability through unrestricted access to information and learning. But there’s a new threat on the horizon already. Cloud computing where the centralisation of information could lead to restrictions once again. Cloud computing could be a great thing, used to further that social brief, but we’ll need to keep reminding ourselves of how easy it is to loose our way.