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Portability and Cost
May 5, 2010 - 9:41pm

Let us engage in a thought experiment. You are teaching a course, and you want your students to participate in an online discussion/debate around some materials. The content that you want your students to discuss and debate is the PBS Frontline episode, "College Inc." that aired May 4th. The online discussion that you want your students to participate in is the one kicked off by Dean Dad -
First Thoughts on "Frontline."

Could you accomplish this teaching goal?

In one sense, this is pretty easy - as PBS has put the documentary online and made it available for free.

Kudos to PBS.

But in another sense, the video will not be equally available and accessible to all of your students. After reading Dean Dad, I was excited to watch College Inc, and join the debate that he kicked off. But streaming the video was not an option for me, as the only window of time I would have to watch the video would be during my oldest daughter's soccer practice (where no WiFi is available). Fortunately, PBS has made the documentary available on iTunes for $1.95. I was able to download the video, and watch it on my iPod Nano (the only mobile screen I happened to have on me today).

So when it comes to acquiring media, I'm a "have." My credit card and iTunes account lets me get the video in a format that allows the most flexibility for viewing - a downloaded file.

Some questions:

Will we see a future in which some students can buy full and flexible access to curricular media, while others must limit themselves to the devices and file formats that are freely available?

How does the principal of universal access to curriculum, regardless of resources, square with an emerging reality of the "paid" download and the "free" stream?

Will some students bypass the available curricular media if it is only available via streaming, if they can afford to purchase the files for the mobile devices that provide them with this flexibility?

This thought experiment had pretty generous terms. A free stream is available. But what about cases where a free stream is not available, and the downloadable file for pay is the only one available? Will faculty be cut-off from assigning media that is as topical and relevant as College Inc? Will curricular media loose its velocity, as the traditional curricular acquisition and distribution cycle lags behind the new markets for downloadable video?

I understand that content providers (iTunes, Amazon, etc.) have not developed reasonable or viable models for academic institutions to license downloadable content. And I understand the legal (i.e. lawsuit) concerns amongst academic institutions for providing curricular media in downloadable format for mobile devices. What I'm hoping for is a discussion around the divergence of learning opportunities based on the ability to pay.


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