Many universities have begun making teaching material freely available online. In 2012 the UK’s Open University launched a platform, FutureLearn, where one can take a ‘Massive Open Online Course’, from a substantial range offered by 26 university partners and three non-university partners. There are also providers in America, Asia, and Australia. Meanwhile, some universities – Yale is a prominent example – simply place recordings of their modules on a website, many collated at iTunesU, and, indeed, one can watch some directly via YouTube, including Michael Sandel’s course on justice:
These developments raise various ethical questions. Here is a central one: why, if at all, should teaching be open access? I suspect that the answer to this question depends on the kind of teaching and what precisely is meant by ‘open access’. Thus, (leaving open whether the arguments are generalizable) here I will consider a narrower suggestion: all university lecture series (where feasible) should be freely available online. Here are two reasons that speak in favour of this idea.
First, people (worldwide) should have the opportunity to know what is known. Knowledge is both intrinsically and instrumentally valuable and university lecture series are one (important) place where knowledge is housed. These points alone suggest there is some reason to give people access where possible. (Similar thoughts can be advanced in favour of internet available commons, such as Wikipedia or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, as discussed previously on this blog). Perhaps there are cases in which access to certain knowledge must be restricted – certain intelligence information during a just war, for example. But the vast majority of information delivered through university courses is harmless (in that sense) and granting access to it would simply mean granting access to cutting edge research in a form engineered for easy consumption.
Second, the move could have a (Pareto-efficient) egalitarianising effect on university education. To wit, by giving students access to lectures from courses similar to those on their own degree, we might reduce various differences in educational and developmental opportunities that exist between attendees of different universities. Benefits would include better access to teaching more suited to one’s learning style and better accessibility for a more diverse range of users, points often emphasised about digitalising learning materials.
Here, meanwhile, are responses to some worries and objections:
Who would pay for it? The exercise would be fairly costless: many universities are already equipped with the necessary facilities and posting lectures online is fairly straightforward. In that sense, it would be funded largely by existing revenue streams from governments, research councils, and students.
Why should these actors pay for others to learn? To the extent that what is provided is a public good, I see no problem with it being government subsidised. Revenue from students is more difficult, but (a) students would continue to receive distinctive returns for their payment (such as library access and tutorials) and (b) the issue, anyway, casts as much question on whether university education should be student or government financed as on the proposal above.
Are not the courses the intellectual property of the lecturers and, thus, within their right to disseminate as they choose (including, if they wish, only for a fee)? I have some doubts about whether university courses, especially those publically funded, can be deemed individual intellectual property, but, even if so, lecturers would not need to exercise this right and the case here would imply that they should not do so.
Would it impact badly on student attendance? Might it even, as some lecturers have worried, undermine the viability of some universities and cost jobs if students can study by watching online lectures posted by other institutions? I doubt either of these effects: evidence shows access to online material typically does not decrease attendance and, as noted above, universities will continue to attract numbers and attendance based on the other, more site-specific components of their teaching profile.
Do online educational resources actually help people learn? Much here might depend on ideas about learning theory. Those who think we learn through stimulus and repetition (‘behaviouralists’ and, to some extent, ‘cognitivists’) are likely to place greater value on the idea than those who think we learn through communication and collaboration (‘collectivists’ or ‘constructivists’). But formats might be tinkered to respond to what would be most beneficial here, and, in any case, does not the potential of the benefits outlined above suggest that it is worth a try?