• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


Congratulations President O’Brien

A survey of the horizon.

January 26, 2015

Congratulations to the new CEO and President of EDUCAUSE, Dr. John O’Brien, and many thanks to the board, and in particular the search committee, for working on behalf of membership to bring the organization, founded less than 20 years ago, to its third presidency. Dr. O’Brien will be inaugurated in the spring. He arrives at a time of challenging promise for information technology in higher education. The shifts that have occurred in higher education because of these technologies remain extraordinary, touching everything from fundamental business processes to the exciting corners of our missions in teaching and learning, research and publication, service and outreach. It is therefore a good time for all of us to reflect on where we have come from, where we are now, and where we are going in this vibrant environment. 

In the area of policy, a quick overview of this journey recalls the French adage “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.” Times may change, but the issues remain relatively the same and do not go away. Writing a blog, not a book, which this topic could easily be, I will endeavor to list some front burner ones. A new president of EDUCAUSE may want to think deeply about how this magnificent organization might position itself accordingly. 

1. Broadband Deployment

Bubbling not too far below the surface of the Obama Administration is an on-going discussion about how to move Internet connectivity forward in this country. Anyone watching over the years knows that the United States lays proud claim to having “invented” the Internet. When first made public, by the nature of that “invention” – and its organic connections with higher education – the United States was at the top of connectivity globally. Now, depending on which source you consider, we have dropped into the 20s or so internationally. Yes, we have a relatively large country as compared to South Korea or Finland, and yes, the free market inevitably offers both strengths and weaknesses to the end goal of accessible, robust connectivity. But still, this statistic is an embarrassing reminder of how resting on our laurels will cost the United States.  That slumber fails to appreciate how this engine of economic, political, and cultural life fits globally into the life of people in the 21st century. 

Higher education could and should be a very big voice in this effort. As the “jewel in crown” of 20th Century America, higher education stands at the crossroads of meaningful participation in civil society no matter what one’s country. And in the 21st Century that participation requires access and facility with Internet technologies.  As a historian, in contemplating the challenge of universal connectivity, I am partial to the comparison of electrification. Stuck in urban areas, which had become predominate in terms of population in by the 1920’s, electrification was hampered by a market economy that, just as in this era, could not make the immediate bottom line work for private companies to expand beyond heavily populated municipal areas. Expansion required a New Deal plan, in its time, much opposed by the very companies that refused to do the work themselves and then profited it from it once it was completed. 

But the private electric companies were not the only beneficiaries of this transformation. Electrification transformed agriculture, especially in the South, where people were not merely connected to light bulbs, but also to 20th-century mechanization. What would it have cost this country to have to electrify the South after we entered the Second World War, when our attention and resources were stretched? Although a complex subject politically, the point is quite simple: the United States cannot afford to be so behind in broadband deployment. Today we might not even know all the reasons why this deployment is central to our economic competitiveness or political significance in the years to come. Higher education, with a vision broader than a bottom line, should exercise its voice on this subject in Washington.  And who better to make the case clearly than those involved in information technology? 

2. Privacy of Student Data

Two weeks ago, President Obama made a historic trip to the Federal Trade Commission to give a speech specifically on this topic, and he has proposed legislation to address this critical issue for Kindergarteners through 12th-graders, as well as those in higher education. At the very least, that is the front-burner issue for higher ed.  As I mentioned in a recent blog post, by mirroring the California law, higher education is NOT included in this proposed legislation. All higher education associations, and EDUCAUSE in particular, must rally around at least this change. The broader purpose of this legislation is dear to all of us: assuring that there are governmental checks on predatory vendors who use education records for their own business purposes and who place us in a position of potential liability with the Department of Education.

Next week, the Berkman Center of Internet Law and Society at Harvard Law School is holding an invitational workshop on this issue. I have been asked to attend, and present, and I will be sure to learn a great deal more about other peoples’ perspectives and expectations on this vital topic.  I am keeping this item short for today, because I plan on writing much more about it in the future. The point is clear, however: EDUCAUSE should become actively involved in this proposed legislation.

3. Intellectual Property

When Steve Worona and I used to do the programming for Institute for Computer Policy and Law (now Internet Culture, Policy and Law), every year we would devote sessions to this topic, and almost every year I would say, okay, but maybe next year we won’t have to?  Well, the joke’s on me!  Intellectual property, so-called in the twentieth century, has been a cornerstone of the U.S. free market economy since the dawn of our country (hence its place in the Constitution as copyright and patent, Article I, Section 8). The entertainment industry, which relies on intellectual property for its business model, and the music industry in particular, was the canary in the coal mine for a disruptive Internet and information technologies. All sides of the debate fear opening the Pandora’s Box of this issue in Congress. To revise the Copyright Act of 1976, as amended, that remains in place from that by-gone era, out of a concern that such “reform” will turn into a free-fall of lobbying, leaves us prey to a darker turn: default to contract. Afraid to open Pandora’s Box? I would rather have the issues out publicly with stakeholders than be silently under the contract regime. Steve was right, this issue is never going away. But we must be prepared to work on more fronts than we even imagined a decade ago.  EDUCAUSE should be involved by supporting members in both Washington and Silicon Valley.

4. Distance Education.

            a. Domestic

            It’s here, it is not going away, and MOOCs are just the tipping point. State education laws that get in the way must be cleaned up or kicked to the curb. EDUCUASE should be leading that charge for higher education. 

            b. International

            Just back from India, I can assert that if the United States does not become intimately involved in international education at every level -- and in distance learning initiatives via Internet technologies -- the developing world will eclipse the United States in higher education, just as the U.S. has fallen behind in broadband development. Until you have been in a country with 1.3 billion people on the brink of extraordinary change, one might be tempted to think about this issue with historic complacency. That would be a mistake. We should be rolling with them, not just in MOOCs but also in our credit-bearing content, shared remotely.  International, inter-institutional course development is where higher education should be putting its efforts.  EDUCAUSE can play a huge role in this development, opening the tent wide and enthusiastically to international players, creating platforms as the means for faculty to find each other, students to connect, and, together, to be sure that government does not get in the way. 

Here is a simple example of what can get in the way of these efforts:  ever try to Gmail in Iran? Without a Virtual Private Network, you can’t. Google encrypts its transmissions, a sound technological practice that runs afoul of Export Control laws. Therefore, Google bans itself from those named countries.

Written three decades ago, these laws were to have applied to portable software that people would personally carry, not for Internet transmission that did not even exist then publicly. This example is a small but meaningful one; many more will crop up with the potential to get in the way of international distance education.  EDUCAUSE must stay on top of these issues, allowing the United States to become competitive with Denmark and New Zealand, the countries that currently lead the world in this arena.

5. Global Internet Governance

I have saved my personal favorite for last because it encompasses so many other critical issues, most notably cyber security. And because it is such an all-encompassing topic of principal significance, I am going to keep my remarks short, with the obvious injunction that EDUCAUSE, to remain meaningful for its membership, must embrace this issue holistically. 

First, get thee to the Berkman Center and its Global Network Initiative to become involved in the direct intersection where higher education and Internet Governance meet. Contact the executive director, Urs Gasser, for more details.  Or, if you would like a primer, check out his talk at ICPL last year.

Second, the Department of Commerce announced last year that it is going to do something different with ICANN, or the International Corporations of Assigned Names and Numbers, as a concession to the many international voices that bristle at U.S. control on these critical domain name servers. This issue is not a simple one. On the one hand, an international perspective does suggest that singular U.S. control is not sustainable going forward in a global economy with so many dynamic players. But on the other hand, who wants to give up technological stability, not to mention values that so many of us in the U.S. hold dear, such as free speech for example? EDUCAUSE must get actively involved in these discussions. The outcome is sure to have an effect on higher education.


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