Tuesday, December 22, 2009
The Boston Globe recently reported on a free, open source website called Finalsclub.org that, among other things, pays Harvard students to post their lecture notes online for use by others. The website is causing concern among educators for several reasons. First, "by relying on students, rather than professors, for material and then posting it for free - Finalsclub.org" shifts control over access to that information from the professor to the students. Although Finalsclub.org hasn't been sued, some professors have gone after commercial sites offering the same kind of content but this time for a fee.
And the issue is not just that individual profs lose control over how and to what extent their lectures are disseminated outside the classroom walls, but universities are now being forced to confront the same issues the music and film industries are still reeling from in light of Web 2.0: how to get people to buy your product when so much of it is already being given away for free on the web.
For universities, the fact that the raw material of an education is, increasingly, easily available means they may have to rethink how they pitch themselves to applicants, perhaps concentrating more on their “value-added” features - their facilities, the opportunities for collaboration with faculty and students, the social scene they provide, or the fact that, for the time being at least, paying tuition and showing up on campus still gets one a diploma, while teaching oneself online does not.
The Chronicle of Higher Ed suggests that one consequence of free accessibility to an extensive online repository of class notes is that students will choose not to attend class. Personally, I'm not too worried about that because I think most students decide whether to attend class based on how well it's taught. If sites such as Finalsclub.org didn't exist, students wouldn't feel compelled to attend a class they otherwise found boring or useless. I more worried about what happens when students start using their laptops or mobile devices to surreptitiously videotape class and post it on YouTube for (all) others to see and use.