"…..I am bothered by the idea that Google should do it for us. We're getting awfully dependent on Uncle Google, and he's a little creepy. He goes through our pockets and looks at our e-mail so he can tell advertisers what we're interested in. It may be better than hiring Blackboard to be our expensive and bossy Jeeves, but it's not that hard to publish to the web."
Barbara's feedback got me thinking about why I am so willing to turn over so much of our "academic" life to Google. And is it just Google? Would I respond equally positively if Microsoft, Amazon, Oracle, or SunGard wanted to provide us with a platform to host, distribute, and discover educational materials such as syllabi? No doubt that this issue touches on much larger questions about the role of for-profit companies inserting themselves in the educational process, and the degree to which we have become dependent on these companies.
Unlike Barbara, my gut seems to be fine with Google providing a platform for exchanging and sharing educational materials. Perhaps because I'm already using Google for my e-mail, documents, and videos (through YouTube), the extension to syllabi and other educational materials feels manageable I trust that Google would do a good job of securely hosting the content. I believe they will be around in the future. I'm fine leaving the expertise in search and online storage to Google, so I can concentrate on writing and sharing my syllabus (and searching for colleagues work to learn from). Google has already aggregated the audience and built the network that would allow such a platform to become truly useful. Educational content sharing relies on network effects to be successful, the larger network the better the service. I am not bothered by Google funding this operation by placing relevant (and discrete) text ads next to the syllabi or other educational content in their database. Monetizing the content will incent Google to invest in the features of the educational content sharing platform, expanding the content range, building community around the content, and making the content easier to access and utilize.
I don't want to be too Google-centric. The key is that this sort of service be offered by a company that I believe will be in the game for the long haul, and has already aggregated the audience, and built a robust technical platform. Microsoft could do this if they were serious about disrupting the higher education market by providing a platform for educational content sharing and discovery. Perhaps some of the other companies I mentioned above could do it as well….although at this point Google and Microsoft are the best positioned.
The other reason that I'm advocating for either Google or Microsoft (or maybe someone else) to leverage their cloud investment to provide higher ed with free (ad supported) educational materials for sharing and discovery is that I believe they would do a better job than we would. Just like I'm happy to have my e-mail sit in the cloud as opposed to on my campus servers, I'd be pleased if the infrastructure of open educational content migrated to the consumer cloud as well. This is partly an argument for scale - sharing is better with big populations - and partly an argument for technology. Google and Microsoft can move much faster than colleges and universities, where it is appropriate we should leverage this speed and scale for our own benefits. The fact that this is a win / win (higher ed / Google, Microsoft) situation should not dissuade us, as technology can help us escape from zero sum thinking.
The question for me is how to get the attention of someone at Google or Microsoft (or some other large company that has similar levels of trust, scale and technology) to try this out? A sharing and discovery platform for digital learning content (including syllabi, but also PowerPoints etc.) would be technically easy to build and deploy. Community tagging and rating would greatly assist in assuring that the best quality content rose to the top in any search. This platform would not be expensive to build, and it would be heavily utilized by educators. Does anybody have any ideas how a conversation with Google, Microsoft or another company could be started?
But first … what do you think about this idea? Is Barbara correct?