The Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor leading its inquiry into whether it inappropriately handled the federal prosecution of Aaron Swartz has provided some details on the investigation. In an open letter published in The Tech, MIT's student newspaper, Hal Abelson pledged a full and open inquiry, and said that the issues were extremely important. "This matter is urgently serious for MIT," Abelson wrote. "The world respects us not only for our scholarship and our science, but because we are an institution whose actions are and always have been guided by the highest ideals and the most thoughtful judgment. Our commitment to those ideals is now coming into question. At last Saturday’s memorial, Aaron’s partner Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman described his mental state: 'He faced indifference from MIT, an institution that could have protected him with a single public statement and refused to do so, in defiance of all of its own most cherished principles.'"
Abelson also announced the creation of a website on which MIT students and faculty members can suggest questions that the review should consider. The site can be viewed by people without MIT affiliations, but they may not contribute.
One potentially positive result of the current fascination with online education is that universities and colleges may be forced to define and defend quality education. This analysis of what we value should help us to present to the public the importance of higher education in a high-tech world. However, the worst thing to do is to equate university education with its worst forms of instruction, which will in turn open the door for distance learning.
Perhaps the most destructive aspect of higher education is the use of large lecture classes. Not only does this type of learning environment tend to focus on students memorizing information for multiple-choice tests, but it also undermines any real distinction between in-person and online education. As one educational committee at the University of California at Los Angeles argued, we should just move most of our introductory courses online because they are already highly impersonal and ineffective. In opposition to this argument, we need to define and defend high-quality in-person classes.
Although some would argue that we should prepare students for the new high-tech world of self-instruction, we still need to teach students how to focus, concentrate, and sustain attention. In large classes, where the teacher often does not even know if the students are in attendance, it is hard to get students to stay on task, and many times, these potential learners are simply surfing the web or text messaging. In a small class, it is much harder for students to be invisible and to multitask, and while some may say that it is not the role of university educators to socialize these young adults, it is clear that the current generation of students does need some type of guidance in how they use technology and participate in their own education.
When people multitask, it often takes them twice as long to complete a task, and they do it half as well. For instance, my students tell me that when they try to write a paper, they are constantly text messaging and surfing the web: the result is that they spend hours writing their essays, and their writing is often disjointed and lacking in coherence. Since they are not focused on a single task, they do not notice that the ideas and sentences in their essays do not flow or cohere. Literally and figuratively, these multitasking students are only partially present when they are writing and thinking.
This lack of presence also shows up in the classroom. Students often act as if they are invisible in small classes because in their large lecture classes they are in many ways not present. Many students seem to lack any awareness of how they appear to others, and they are so used to sleeping in their large classes that they do not think about how their present absence appears to other students in a smaller class. Of course, it is much more difficult for students to be either literally or figuratively absent in a small class, but some students have been socialized by their large lecture classes to ignore the different expectations of more intimate learning environments.
As many higher education teachers have experienced, some students are able to participate in online discussion forums but have a hard time speaking in their small seminars. Once again, students may find it difficult being present in front of others and taking the risk of presenting their own ideas in the presence of others. Some distance educators argue that we can resolve this problem by just moving classes online, but do we really want to train a generation of students who do not know how to communicate to other people in a natural setting?
I worry that students are losing the ability to make eye contact and read body language, and that they are not being prepared to be effective citizens, workers, and family members. This disconnect from in-person communication also relates to a distance from the natural world, and a growing indifference to the destruction of our environment. In this alienation from nature and natural environments, people, also lose the ability to distinguish between true and false representations. Since on the web, everything is a virtual image or simulation generated by digital code, we live in a state of constant in-difference.
The web also creates the illusion that all information is available and accessible to anyone at any time. This common view represses the real disparities of access in our world and also undermines the need for educational experts. After all, if you can get all knowledge from Wikipedia or a Google search, why do you need teachers or even colleges? In response to this attitude, we should recenter higher education away from the learning of isolated facts and theories and concentrate on teaching students how to do things with information. In other words, students need to be taught by expert educators about how to access, analyze, criticize, synthesize, and communicate knowledge from multiple perspectives and disciplines.
While online educators argue that the traditional methods of instruction I have been discussing are outdated because they do not take into account the ways the new digital youth learn and think, I would counter that there is still a great need to teach students how to focus, concentrate, and discover how to make sense of the information that surrounds them. Too many online enthusiasts sell the new generation of students short by arguing that they can only learn if they are being entertained or if learning is an exciting, self-paced activity. Yet, we still need to teach people to concentrate and sustain their attention when things may get a little boring or difficult. Not all education should be fast-paced and visually stimulating; rather, people have to learn how to focus and stick with difficult and challenging tasks.
In this age of distracted living, where people crash their cars while text messaging and parents ignore their children while multitasking, do we really want a generation of students to take college classes on their laptops as they text, play games, and check their Facebook status updates? Isn’t there something to value about showing up to a class at the right time and the right place with the proper preparation and motivation? The idea of anytime, anyplace education defeats the purpose of having a community of scholars engaged in a shared learning experience. Furthermore, the stress on self-paced learning undermines the value of the social nature of education; the end result is that not only are students studying and bowling alone, but they are being seduced by a libertarian ideology that tells them that only the individual matters, and there is no such thing as a public space anymore.
When students have to be in a class and listen to their teacher and fellow learners, they are forced to turn off their cell phones and focus on a shared experience without the constant need to check their Facebook pages or latest texts. This experience represents one of the only reprieves young people will have from their constantly connected lives. In fact, students have told me that they would hate to take their classes online because they already feel addicted to their technologies. From their perspective, moving required classes online is like giving free crack to addicts and telling them that it will be good for them.
In order to help my students understand their dependence on technology and their alienation from nature and their own selves, I often bring them outside and tell them that they cannot do anything. This exercise often makes students very anxious, and when I later have students free-write about the experience, they write that they are not used to just doing nothing, and they felt an intense need to reach for their phones: this dependence on communication technologies will only be enhanced by moving to distance education.
Online education then not only adds to our culture of distracted multitasking, but it also often functions to undermine the values of university professors. In the rhetoric of student-centered education, the teacher is reduced to being a "guide on the side," and this downgraded position entails that there is no need to give this facilitator tenure or a stable position; instead, through peer grading and computer assisted assessment, the role of the teachers is being eliminated, and so it is little wonder that colleges operating only online employ most of their faculty off the tenure track.
These online colleges and universities have also separated teaching from research and have basically “unbundled” the traditional role of the faculty member. Like the undermining of newspapers by new media, we now have more sources of information but fewer people being paid to do the actual on the ground work of researching and reporting. Also as Wikipedia has turned every amateur into a potential expert, our society is losing the value of expert, credentialed educators. Although some see this as a democratization of instruction and research, it can also be read as a destruction of the academic business model and a move to make people work for free as traditional jobs are downsized and outsourced.
Many online programs proclaim that education is democratized by having students grade each other’s work, but isn’t this confusion between the roles of the student and the teachers just a way of rationalizing the elimination of the professor? Moreover, the use of computer programs to assess student learning is only possible if people think that education is solely about rote memorization and standardization. Yes we can use computers to grade students, but only if we think of students as standardized computer programs.
In contrast to massive open online courses, small, in-person classes often force students to encounter new and different perspectives, and the students cannot simply turn off the computer or switch the channel. Unfortunately, too many colleges and universities rely too much on large lecture courses that allow students to tune out during class and then teach themselves the material outside of class. While I am all for flipping the class and having students learn the course content outside of the classroom, we still need to use actual class time to help students to engage in research in a critical and creative fashion.
This push for small interactive classes will be resisted by the claim that it is simply too expensive to teach every student in this type of learning environment. However, my research shows that it is often more expensive to teach students in large lecture classes than in small seminars once you take into account the full cost of having graduate assistants teach the small sections attached to the large classes. Furthermore, the direct cost of hiring faculty to teach courses is often a fraction of the total cost of instruction, and massive savings could be generated if higher education institutions focused on their core missions and not the expensive areas of sponsored research, athletics, administration, and professional education. Being present at the university means that students and teachers are present in their classes and that education is the central presence of the institution.
(Illustration by Giulia Forsythe, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 agreement)
Submitted by Rob Weir on January 22, 2013 - 3:00am
Stewart Brand is credited with coining the phrase "information wants to be free." In the wake of the suicide of 26-year-old cyber activist Aaron Swartz, we need to re-evaluate that assumption.
Brand, the former editor of The Whole Earth Catalog and a technology early adopter, is a living link between two great surges in what has been labeled "the culture of free": the 1967 Summer of Love and the Age of Information that went supernova in the late 1990s. Each period has stretched the definition of "free."
During the Summer of Love, the Diggers Collective tried to build a money-free enclave in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. They ran "free" soup kitchens, stores, clinics and concerts. Myth records this as a noble effort that ran aground; history reveals less lofty realities. "Free" was in the eye of the beholder. The Diggers accumulated much of the food, clothing, medicine, and electronic equipment it redistributed by shaking down local merchants like longhaired mob muscle. Local merchants viewed Digger "donations" as a cost of doing business analogous to lost revenue from shoplifting. Somebody paid for the goods; it just wasn’t the Diggers or their clients.
Move the clock forward. Aaron Swartz’s martyr status crystallizes as I type. As the legend grows, Swartz was a brilliant and idealistic young man who dropped out of Stanford and liberated information for the masses until swatted down by multinational corporations, elitist universities, and the government. Faced with the potential of spending decades behind bars for charges related to hacking into JSTOR, a depressed Swartz committed suicide. (In truth, as The Boston Globe has reported, a plea bargain was nearly in place for a four-to-six-month sentence.)
I am sorry that Swartz died, and couldn’t begin to say whether he was chronically depressed, or if his legal woes pushed him over the edge. I do assert, though, that he was no hero. The appropriate label is one he once proudly carried: hacker. Hacking, no matter how principled, is a form of theft.
It’s easy to trivialize what Swartz did because it was just a database of academic articles. I wonder if his supporters would have felt as charitable if he had "freed" bank deposits. His was not an innocent act. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts took the not-unreasonable position that there is a considerable difference between downloading articles from free accounts registered with a university, and purloining 4.8 million documents by splicing into wiring accessed via unauthorized entry into a computer closet. That’s hacking in my book – the moral equivalent of diverting a bank teller with a small transaction whilst a partner ducks behind the counter and liberates the till.
Brand and his contemporaries often parse the definition of free. Taking down barriers and making data easier to exchange is “freeing” in that changing technology makes access broader and cheaper to deliver. Alas, many young people don’t distinguish between "freeing" and "free." Many of my undergrads think nearly all information should come at no cost – free online education, free movies, free music, free software, free video games…. Many justify this as Swartz did: that the value of ideas and culture is artificially inflated by info robber barons.
They’re happy to out the villains: entrenched university administrations, Hollywood producers, Netflix, the Big Three record labels, Amazon, Microsoft, Nintendo, Sega…. I recently had a student pulled from my class and arrested for illegal music downloading. He was considerably less worried than Swartz and pronounced, "I fundamentally don’t believe anyone should ever have to pay for music." This, mind you, after I shared tales of folk musicians and independent artists that can’t live by their art unless they can sell it.
Sorry, but this mentality is wrong. Equally misguided are those who, like Swartz before his death, seek to scuttle the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act. Are these perfect bills? No. Do they protect big corporations, but do little to shelter the proverbial small fish? Yes. Do we need a larger political debate about the way in which conglomeration has stifled innovation and competition? Book me a front-row seat for that donnybrook. Are consumers of everything from music to access to academic articles being price gouged? Probably. But the immediate possibility of living in a world in which everything is literally free is as likely as the discovery of unicorns grazing on the Big Rock Candy Mountain.
Let’s turn to JSTOR, the object of Swartz’s most recent hijinks. (He was a repeat offender.) JSTOR isn’t popular among librarians seeking subscription money, or those called upon to pay for access to an article (which is almost no one with a university account who doesn’t rewire the network). Many wonder why money accrues to those whose only "creation" is to aggregate the labor of others, especially when some form of taxpayer money underwrote many of the articles. That’s a legitimate concern, but defending Swartz’s method elevates vigilantism above the rules of law and reason. More to the point, reckless "liberation" often does more harm than good.
JSTOR charges university libraries a king’s ransom for its services. Still, few libraries could subscribe to JSTOR’s 1,400 journals more cheaply. (Nor do many have the space to store the physical copies.) The institutional costs for top journals are pricey. Go to the Oxford University Website and you’ll find that very few can be secured for under $200 per volume, and several are over $2,000. One must ultimately confront a question ignored by the culture of free: Why does information cost so much?
Short answer: Because journals don’t grow on trees. It’s intoxicating to think that information can be figuratively and literally free, until one assembles an actual journal. I don’t care how you do it; it’s going to cost you.
I’m the associate editor of a very small journal in the academic pond. We still offer print journals, which entails thousands of dollars in printing and mailing costs for each issue. Fine, you say, print is dead. Produce an e-journal. Would that be "free?" Our editor is a full-time academic. She can only put in the hours needed to sift articles, farm them out for expert review, send accepted articles to copy editors, forward copy to a designer, and get the journal to subscribers because her university gives her a course reduction each semester. That’s real money; it costs her department thousands of dollars to replace her courses. Design, copy editing, and advertising fees must be paid, and a few small stipends are doled out. Without violating confidentiality I can attest that even a modest journal is expensive to produce. You can’t just give it away, because subscribers pick up the tab for everything that can’t be bartered.
Could you do this free online with no membership base? Sure – with a team of editors, designers, and Web gurus that don’t want to get paid for the countless hours they will devote to each issue. Do you believe enough in the culture of free to devote your life to uncompensated toil? (Careful: The Diggers don’t operate those free stores anymore.) By the way, if you want anyone to read your journal, you’ll give it to JSTOR or some other aggregator. Unless, of course, you can drum up lots of free advertising.
The way forward in the Age of Information begins with an honest assessment of the hidden costs within the culture of free. I suggest we retire the sexy-but-hollow phrase “information wants to be free" and resurrect this one: "There’s no such thing as a free lunch." And for hackers and info thieves, here’s one from my days as a social worker: "If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime."
Rob Weir teaches history at Smith College. He is the author of Inside Higher Ed's "Instant Mentor" career advice column.
Michael Barera has been named Wikipedian in residence at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library at the University of Michigan -- the first such position at a presidential library. Barera will focus on expanding the availability of information about President Ford and the library's holdings on Wikipedia through the Gerald Ford WikiProject.
Days after the other public institutions in the state announced expanded initiatives to incorporate massive open online courses into their curriculums, leaders of the University of California said they would soon bolster their own efforts to use digital courses to expand student access in a more cost-effective way, the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press reported. Speaking at a Board of Regents meeting at which officials of the MOOC providers Coursera, Udacity and edX made presentations and regents discussed a position paper on online learning, President Mark G. Yudof said the university had "hit a wall with regard to traditional instructional methods," and suggested that online learning was largely the way way out. Yudof said the university would soon be announcing several expansions of its fledgling campaign to expand online learning, which has faced significant pushback from some faculty members. He vowed that the new efforts would be of high quality and not lead to layoffs of instructors.
Aaron Swartz committed suicide last week at the age of 26. I would like to pay tribute to him by writing calm, elegiac prose conveying something of his intelligence, his passion, and the distinctive quality of puckishness that photographs of him managed to capture surprisingly well.
Unfortunately it does not look like that is going to be possible. Things would need to make more sense than they have, so far. Feelings of sadness and anger, which are perfectly appropriate responses, keep giving way to the paradoxical and incoherent state of mind in which I both grasp what has happened and simultaneously think that it can’t really be true. This reached its worst and most absurd expression in the passing thought that news of his suicide might be part of a scheme in which Aaron is alive and well, living under a new identity someplace where U.S. government prosecutors will never find him.
It’s possible! Well, no, of course it isn’t. This state of mind is what they call “being in denial,” and it’s embarrassing to recognize. But it hardly seems more irrational than the reality in question. For the government’s prosecution of Aaron for hacking into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's system to download a few million articles from scholarly journals was not just a case of intellectual-property law being enforced with too much zeal. It seems more like an expression of vindictiveness.
Consider something just reported by the Associated Press: “Andrew Good, a Boston attorney who represented Swartz in the case last year, said he told federal prosecutors in Massachusetts that Swartz was a suicide risk. 'Their response was, put him in jail, he’ll be safe there,' Good said." It is too hard to think about that. Better to imagine him escaping, carrying on his work in silence, cunning, and exile.
He was already something of a legend when we met for lunch not quite five years ago, having already been in touch for a couple of years. At the time, he was known for his role in the creation of RSS and Infogami; his internet-freedom activism and legal troubles were to come. Among his projects had been the online archive he created for Lingua Franca magazine, then defunct though still widely admired. I had been a contributing writer for LF and heard about Aaron from a couple of friends, and was very glad to be able to interview him about the Open Library cataloging initiative he was helping to launch.
Not that long before we were able to meet face-to-face, Aaron had given a talk called “How to Get a Job Like Mine” which covered his career up through the age of 20. In person, he was modest about his teenage coding career, or at least disinclined to say much about it, and I never got the feeling that his later exploits in taking on the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) database and JSTOR involved anything like hacker vainglory.
In his activism (legal and otherwise) as in his early coding projects, the emphasis was always squarely on making access to information and tools more widely available, on the grounds that restricting the flow of knowledge served only to make already-powerful people still more powerful. Aaron seemed earnest without being dour or humorless, which struck me as giving him one leg up on his hero Noam Chomsky.
While trying to pull these impressions together, I had a moment of seeing something about Aaron that never crossed my mind while he was alive, although it seems, with hindsight, pretty obvious: He was as perfect an embodiment of the mythological being known as the trickster as anyone could possibly be. My copy of Lewis Hyde’s brilliant book Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art (1998) has gone missing, but the author’s website has a pertinent description.
Trickster figures in various cultures “are the consummate boundary-crossers, slipping through keyholes, breaching walls, subverting defense systems. Always out to satisfy their inordinate appetites, lying, cheating, and stealing, tricksters are a great bother to have around, but paradoxically they are also indispensable heroes of culture. In North America, Coyote taught the race how to catch salmon, sing, and shoot arrows. In West Africa, Eshu introduced the art of divination so that suffering humans might know the purposes of heaven. In Greece, Hermes the Thief invented the art of sacrifice, the trick of making fire, and even language itself.”
The gods and worldly authorities alike think of the trickster as a criminal, or at least a bad apple. Furthermore, tricksters tend to be prodigies -- their genius for invention and disruption already evident in childhood, if not infancy. In the introduction to his book, Hyde writes that the trickster’s disregard for the rules “isn’t so much to get away with something or to get rich as to disturb the established categories of truth and property and, by so doing, open the road to possible new worlds.”
That names Aaron’s attitude beautifully, and my fleeting daydream that he might somehow be pulling a fast one on the authorities is like something out of a trickster narrative. The resemblance also goes some way towards explaining why, more than anyone I've ever met, he seems destined to be remembered as a hero for a long time to come. You don't get to make that many friends who are archetypes, but Aaron was an exceptional person no matter how you look at him.
California officials will today announce a program in which San Jose State University and Udacity, a provider of massive open online courses, to create online courses in remedial algebra, college-level algebra, and introductory statistics, The New York Times reported. The courses will be offered to San Jose State and community college students. In the pilot stage, only 300 students will be enrolled, but the effort is seen as a way to potentially reach large numbers of students in a state where many public colleges and universities don't have room for eligible students.
As another step in the overhaul of its core curriculum, Lynn University will require every first-year student to purchase an iPad mini, and will use iTunes U as a content delivery method for those courses.