posted 2012-03-22 00:07:14

Technically Correct

Brandon W Maister

Staff Writer

The future of college-level education is unclear. College debt and changing tech are raising questions about what holding an advanced degree will mean in 30, 20, or even 10 years.

An institution that has been stable for 1,400 years will be changing dramatically— perhaps to the point of disappearance— within decades. The last decade has given rise to uncountable experiments and growing education institutions, all of which are shaping the future. The largest of these is familiar to all CUNY students: Blackboard is the plodding elephant of the education technology (ed-tech) landscape, and ed-tech, in some form, is the future.

The problem that will be immediately apparent to CUNY students and faculty is that, if Blackboard is the future, the future is bleak. Aside from being ugly and hard to use its purpose is at odds with the goals of education. The company needs to lock us in to their system, while we need to speak out and reach out to coworkers and peers.

In addition to the technical problems with Blackboard Learn (the software we use), there are serious institutional and even moral problems with the way Blackboard Inc. (the company) does business—suing competitors and otherwise acting like the kind of monopoly we normally associate with the textbook industry. Blackboard’s history of litigation, when combined with how difficult it is to even use the data entrusted to it, dramatically limits the value that anyone, student or professor, can get out of it. But what are the alternatives?

While Blackboard is dominant, with around 50% of American students using it, the last five years have marked a dramatic decline in Blackboard’s popularity. Where once, in only 2007, it was thought that Blackboard was unbeatable, 2011 was practically “the year of the education startup.” Even Obama requested money to create a new ARPA-ED government agency modeled on the one that gave us GPS and the Internet.

Schools have embraced open learning in a variety of ways, famously MIT’s OpenCourseWare and Stanford’s recent experiments in massive education. But no colleges are working on a platform that can be used across campus boundaries to create and to teach.

Software development is not normally thought of as falling within the purview of the college, the results are used within colleges, but written by people outside the college system. That is similar to the textbook industry, but technology is different. There are already massive open source communities built around various parts of ed-tech that are composed of professors and independent volunteers working together. Open source, for those who don’t know, references the copyright on the source code of programs: if it is freely modifiable and redistributable by anybody with the skill and inclination, then it is open source.

The legal requirements of open source copyright licenses encourage collaborative building and sharing, values that are aligned with the goals of educational institution and with most of the faculty that make them up. CUNY and the U.S. Government have recognized the value of collaborative building, both in law—tax- payer funded research is public domain— and in practice, with contributions to many open source projects ostensibly for the public good.

Let’s say that there are two kinds of ed- tech in the world: corporate and non-profit. Both categories were well represented in 2011. Pearson, one of the largest Textbook companies, commonly known to American students as Prentice “We’ll charge you $100 for a 60 page textbook” Hall, began inviting institutions to its new OpenClass system last year. This new product is competing with the full range of startups and established players, but it is most similar to, and therefore most needs to differentiate itself from, Blackboard. And it is different: it’s free and it’s owned and run by Pearson.

Free is important—CUNY currently has a four million dollar contract with Blackboard for five years of its service, that’s $800,000 per year. If Blackboard’s contract costs were knocked out we could get 8 more tenured professors—or 33 full- time adjuncts.

However, OpenClass is run by Pearson, the people who regularly charge students—among the most vulnerable populations in the first world—hundreds of dollars for books that cost a fraction of that to produce. So why are they giving it away for free? They haven’t told anyone their long-term strategy, but they have been watching the same changes as everyone else: printed text is going out with times, and more and more students are downloading e-books. Free services make money by advertising or monetizing user data.

The privacy violations possible with the kinds of information we give our colleges make the last decade’s headlines about Facebook and Google pale in comparison. Institutions of higher learning are riding the wave of ed-tech, a wave that Pearson and many others like it are building, and working together they have more ability today to shape their landscape than ever before. This is perhaps the most exciting time in history to be involved in the infrastructure of education: the choices that our institutions make today are going to affect the nature of education for centuries.

CUNY’s Blackboard contract expires in three years, and if they want to migrate away from it they need to start planning soon. Certainly organizations like CUNY, which are established by public money and in the public trust, have a moral obligation to think about not only what their choices mean for their current students, but also what they could be doing to promote the general welfare.