Open Education, Outreach, and “Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free”

Two campus conversations that this book could help inform.

April 22, 2015
Published in November of 2014.
There are two conversations that we are having on campus that would be informed by Doctorow’s Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free:
Conversation #1 - Open Education:
Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free is in large part a book about why digital content is so often locked, and who these locks benefit.  Let’s take the case of Amazon, Kindle books, and the Kindle e-reader.  When I buy a Kindle book I forfeit the right to transfer that book to another platform.  Nor can I share my Kindle book with anyone else (beyond the limited sharing that Amazon allows).  I can’t re-sell my Kindle books.  And what happens to my Kindle book collection when I die?  The same goes for all the Audible (owned by Amazon) audiobooks that I purchase.   The fact that my Amazon purchased digital books are only accessible in ways that Amazon allows represents a real loss of control and autonomy from the days of paper books.  Yet digital books purchased from Amazon are the only books that I buy.  Doctorow argues that this is a bad choice, not only for individuals but for society as a whole.  When we let large media and technology corporations control how we interact and share information and ideas, we also surrender some of the fundamental building blocks of our culture.
Doctorow does not spend much time addressing open education content, but the issues that he raises on the consumer side are relevant in our educational work.  To what degree have we made the use of open access educational curricular materials a priority on our campuses?  There are a number of forces pushing against institutional investments in creating, securing, and disseminating open curricular resources.  First, the costs for learning materials are usually borne by the student, not the school.  When a professor assigns a textbook it is up to the student to find that resource.   In schools that have bundled the curricular materials costs into the tuition (a good idea I think), the incentives are lined up correctly to find open educational content.  
Conversation #2 - Outreach:
The second big argument that Doctorow makes in Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free is about how creators should think of the Internet.  Doctorow sees the Web as world’s greatest promotion platform.  He argues that creators need to develop both a distinctive voice and a following first, if they hope to get paid later.  The advice that Doctorow gives is that creative people should mostly give up thinking that they can make a living solely from what they create for online platforms, and instead think of the Web as tool for promotion, connection, and networking.  
One lesson that higher ed can take from Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free is the importance to our institutions of being part of the (increasingly online) conversation.  In a crowded and increasingly competitive postsecondary space, one where educational consumers have more options than anytime in the past (from schools to MOOCs to Lynda.com), it is more important than ever to be seen as visible, engaged, and relevant.  This means that it is a mistake to segregate off the social media people from those on your campus that work in engagement, outreach, and public affairs.  Nor does it make sense to have silos of communicators, as digital outreach efforts need to be coordinated, planned, tracked, and measured.  Reading Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free on would spark some good discussion and ideas amongst your  campus communicators.
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