Access denied? – Considering SOPA and higher ed

This post addresses the potential implications of US SOPA and PIPA bills for the larger higher ed landscape. Here is a link to the original post, from January 23, 2012: Access denied? Considering SOPA & higher ed.

Unless you’ve been offline and away from your computer for the past week, you have probably seen or read something about the many Internet site “blackouts” in protest of the U.S. bills SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act), with high profile demonstrations and shutdowns from Wikipedia, Google, Reddit, BoingBoingand others.

In the course of my various degrees I’ve never had a class on intellectual property (IP) issues, and though I find it difficult at times to keep up with the details of the policies, I think it’s important that we all learn something about these issues given their increasing relevance to education.

As academic librarians stepped up via Twitter to help out those panicked undergrads who couldn’t function without a Wikipedia page to steer them in the right direction, I wondered in what ways my own research process is (or is not) entangled with the political, legal and technical issues raised by SOPA/PIPA. Revising, adding to, and sharing research materials is an ongoing process, one that I couldn’t have developed even 10 years ago because the tools — many of them online — simply weren’t available. At the same time, the information “field” is now so huge that it’s hard to know where and how to begin our searches, and the search is in no way restricted to library databases or to academically sanctioned channels of information seeking (Google Scholar is generally my first stop these days). What exactly is “content” now and how do we find it?

For example one problem is that SOPA/PIPA could affect content on social media sites like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, as discussed in this TED talk by Clay Shirky. Shirky discusses how we not only discover, but also share and create content using the Internet. This is an important point — as students, teachers and researchers, we’re now using the Internet for much more than just straightforward searches for academic content. As well as the more popular sites, specialty tools such as and more are examples of how social networking and online information sharing have started to change what educators do and how we connect with others.

Though the example isn’t a parallel, Canada’s PSE institutions have already had copyright problems related to the increasing digitization of research and teaching materials. Many of us experienced first-hand the effects of changes to Access Copyright when a number of universities decided not to use the service anymore, after the tariff per student was to be more than doubled. This past September was, as I recall, more hectic than usual as we waited for course readings to be approved, assembled and copied so students could purchase and read them for class.

As others have pointed out, it was also during the past week that Apple unveiled its new online textbook project. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, it sounds like Apple wants to link the use of its textbook apps directly to expansion of the market for iPads by creating a new technological territory and governing it solo. At worst, this buys in to the notion of technology as academic panacea while also cynically making the play to generate the technology on which education will come to rely. In other words, it’s a tidy business move; but will it work — and what will be the implications for knowledge and for already-stratified education systems, if it does? It may be nice to see education “front and centre” but not, in my opinion, when the goal is to create a closed economy.

While SOPA/PIPA has been postponed indefinitely, the issues it raises will not disappear. Even as we find ourselves with a new freedom to find research materials and share these with others, our new relationships and sources of information are dependent on systems that are beyond many people’s reach and understanding. Even if we learn how to code, to make our own apps, are we not still using infrastructure that is controlled elsewhere and could be policed or shut down without our consent? We need to pay attention to the changing information infrastructure (its physical, legal, and political economic aspects), since the changes made today can and will affect our capacities as researchers and teachers in the future.

The absurdity of numbers

Building on the same themes I discussed in “Proof of the pudding“, this post returns to the “completion agenda” in the United States and the role of for-profit colleges, the question of who is getting what out of higher education, and some issues with the concept of “human capital” as a driver of policy. Here is a link to the original post from February 20, 2011: The absurdity of numbers.

A number of recent posts on Inside Higher Ed have highlighted national (U.S.) debates on post-secondary policy and its relation to Barack Obama’s economic/policy plan. Obama has repeatedly emphasised the importance of education and research funding, even as the Tea Party have lobbied the Republicans to try to reduce funding. Meanwhile legislation has been introduced for the purpose of regulating private, for-profit career colleges, and it’s being battled every step of the way by the lobby groups associated with said colleges and by their political various allies.

All these developments relate in some way to the pressure to increase enrollments and “completion” rates—what some have referred to as the “completion agenda”—from post-secondary institutions. And that imperative is about developing a “knowledge economy”, so that the United States can remain competitive in the assumed global zero-sum game in which national prosperity is at stake.

In Canada, federal and provincial governments have taken up precisely the same strategy of pushing for more graduates, both in undergraduate and in graduate education (witness in Ontario the provincial Liberals’ goal to create 14,000 more graduate student spaces from 2002-3 levels, by 2010—see OCUFA, 2007).

Like others, I question the use of these kind of numbers as a means of gauging a nation’s success at, or progress toward, developing a sustainable “knowledge economy”. Human capital may be available, but this doesn’t mean that the “capital” will be put to use (i.e. that people, with their skills, will be able to find employment) in the immediate or near future. Are there sufficient job opportunities for those who make the “individual investment” in PSE, such that the investment will “pay off”?

The numbers conceal a potential over-production of graduates through the assumption that more college/university degrees automatically means more access to gainful employment for all those who graduate, as well as producing a more “innovative” workforce. (I’ve previously written posts about relative value vs. inherent value in education, and the policy implications.)

The focus on these numbers also hides the uneven quality of mass post-secondary education and the unequally shared burden of its increasing cost. For example, in the United States the for-profit career colleges often market to traditionally under-privileged groups who cannot access more prestigious institutions, but who ironically end up paying hefty tuition fees anyway—and finding themselves burdened with debt by the time their studies are over. It’s a debt they have trouble re-paying due to difficulties with obtaining appropriate employment after graduation.

Along with student “completion” comes the imperative to discover its causes, a search that has produced a whole range of new objects for measurement. One example is the project to measure levels of “student engagement” (gauged by the National Survey of Student Engagement, NSSE). Tests of student learning “outcomes”, and the development of standardised curricular goals, are also related to this process of environmental assessment.

Responsibility for failure must also be assigned, such as in this article where the author discusses reports that argue that “many American colleges are failing to graduate their students, at a time when the Obama administration and leading foundations are trying to ramp up the number of Americans earning a postsecondary credential.” So the university/college becomes a new target for critiques and for governmental interventions designed to ensure “quality” and positive “outcomes” for graduates.

In some ways, the obsession with numbers is really just a sign that education and its “products” are considered to be more important than ever—for their economic value—and thus they become, increasingly, sites of scrutiny for a plethora of “publics”, including not only governments but also parents, students, employers, and the media. But focussing on and rewarding outcomes, usually “completion” as either a proportion of the eligible age cohort or of the national adult population overall, means that institutions are more likely to implement “quick” technocratic fixes to what is generally a much deeper structural problem. Do we really need more graduates who are struggling to find work and to alleviate debts? How can we create a situation where these graduates are more likely to be solvent and employed upon, or shortly after, finishing their PSE courses?

A larger number of PSE graduates is only desirable, economically, if it produces the intended effect; but what we see instead could be an increase to the number of young people who are actually unable to participate fully in this economy even though they may technically possess the credentials for doing so. Unless this issue is addressed, the “production” of more PSE graduates is much less likely to benefit either the national economy or the individual graduates themselves.

Reference: OCUFA, 2007. Quality at risk: an assessment of the Ontario government’s plans for graduate education.