a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Should Teaching be Open Access?

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?

Andrew Walton is Senior Lecturer in Political Philosophy in the Politics Department at Newcastle University. His research centres on questions of economic ethics and justice in housing policy.



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  1. Andrew, thanks for this post. I neatly summarizes the pros and cons. It seems, however, that those who reject open access teaching are more worried about the long-term dynamics of such courses on academia as a whole. Thus, one negative effect might be that open access courses replace, rather than complement, other forms of teaching (I guess this is what you mean by "student attendance" – that makes it sound as if it was just a question of students choosing whether or not to go show up in class. But there is also the side of administrators and those who fund universities, who might hold that if certain courses are available online, no resources need to be spent for teaching them offline as well). If these arguments come from academics, one might think that they are raised out of self-interest and a desire to protect jobs in academia. But there are deeper questions here about the role of personal relations and personal interaction in teaching (which touches upon the last point you raise). So, in short, some might say that while your arguments may be sound, they play into the hands of the wrong people, namely those who want to cut down certain forms of academic teaching altogether. Do you think this worry is justified?

  2. My 2 cents: one of the best – of not *the* best – philosophy course I've ever 'attended' is Shelly Kagan's on Death, on the webpage of the Yale University. At the time I found it I was 36 and had several degrees in philosophy (including a PhD.)

  3. Lisa, thanks for this comment. The thought you raise is certainly a worry. Although I did not do a very good job of separating them, it was this worry that I meant to site with the second question posed in the same paragraph as the worry about student attendance. Presently, I am not sure I have a well-developed answer, I think partly because, with online courses being so recent, it is difficult to predict the effects, especially the long-term, indirect. But here are two reasons to be optimistic. First, I think there will remain value in course-specific ‘live’ lectures, ranging from ensuring variety is available in even very similar content to the benefits of direct interaction with a lecturer, such as the chance to ask questions. Second, even if it meant a reduction in lecture delivery, it seems unlikely that lecturers, students, or university administrators will think that online lectures are ‘enough’ teaching. As you say, there is an important role for personal relations and interaction, perhaps especially in forums such as small-group seminars or lab-work. As I say, I find it difficult to know how to estimate the different possible effects and the worry you suggest is clearly an important one (indeed, as is even the bargaining chip that it would make available). But my instinct at this juncture is that (the demand for) these kinds of benefits to continuing in-house lectures and other teaching resources mean that the pressure on, e.g., jobs will not be overly significant. I guess we would also retain a possibility of roll-back if the threat became too apparent.

  4. Interesting as always, Andrew.

    Do you think that there is anything distinctive about universities in this respect? It seems to me that a core part of your argument results upon 'knowledge being intrinsically and instrumentally valuable'. If this is where the force of your argument comes from, wouldn't it apply just as much to other organisations?

  5. Really enjoyed this, thanks Andrew. Do you think that the quality of teaching would increase with greater open access (a type of 'accountability' and/or 'potential for widened recognition' consideration, or something similar); and, if so, do you think this alters (strengthens) your argument in any way?

  6. Good question, Tom. My thinking is that the answer is part ‘yes’ and, possibly, part ‘no’. I think you are right that the driving thrust of the argument – on the importance of access to knowledge – does extend beyond universities. What I am less sure about is whether some of the possible objections would unfold differently in other cases. For example, it might be more questionable whether knowledge amassed by private companies (a) could be mobilised for public dissemination at as little cost, thus raising questions about who pays the bill or (b) can be seen as publically financed in the same way. It is possible that both of these differences can be reduced or overridden – if the public good argument holds, perhaps the state could have a larger place in funding and disseminating what such companies are researching also. What I mean to point towards is only that there might be differences between cases and different complications that arise for the through-path of the argument. Do you have any particular instances in mind?

  7. Thanks for the question, Fay. What you raise is another set of things that I think do stand in favour of the idea, but, because they have their own merits and drawbacks, I thought I could not address in the post. My sense is that there are positives precisely of the kind you suggest. Depending on how the idea was executed, I think there could be benefits such as (i) ensuring an element of quality enhancement generated by the self-consciousness of the activity (i.e., that if one treats the task lazily, it will not be only a small group of students who could ever know that) and (ii) enhancing the space of teaching in academic careers – for example, by giving one a resource that can be shown to, e.g., potential employers of one’s teaching style, something which, otherwise, is rather difficult to evidence and assess. In these respects, I think there are, at least, some complementary reasons to support the argument. The worry, I guess, is that there are also potential problems in these lines too – e.g., the potential to review and monitor how lecturers are executing every lecture could also be utilised in more troubling ways and perhaps it will add a dimension of performance competition to the activity that would be unwanted and could produce negative bi-products. Overall, I am probably a little less confident on what I think we should say about these aspects, but like some of the other worries I mention, I am inclined to think that the potential positives and the possibility of structuring the delivery to reduce the negatives suggest it is worth seeing what we can get from it.

  8. This is a real issue with regard to pharmaceutical research, for example. But to understand the kind of knowledge that companies could reveal, you’d already need a lot of basic understanding of these fields. The basic issue here, it seems, is how you want to structure competition and what kinds of effects on overall efficiency you get. If you force companies to reveal certain pieces of information of knowledge, they might simply not invest in research any more. There might be issues of competition among universities as providers of knowledge as well, but they seem less essential.

  9. Andrew thanks for the post. I wonder if this also means that you also think university class rooms should also be open access. It seems to me that most of what you say in your argument also applies to this case.

  10. I didn't have any specific cases in mind. My thought was that, if we think about why your proposal wouldn't be a good idea in the case of other institutions, this might help us to think about the objections that might also be present in the case of universities.

  11. Thanks for the thought, Siba. In essence, I think you are probably right. My only hesitation is similar to that I voiced above in relation to Tom's comment. To wit, there might be differences that could alter the balance, at least somewhat. One difference here might be that seminar class rooms perhaps function their best when students do not feel under intense pressure. Lecturers, on the whole, should be equipped to speak to large audiences and able to present their material confidently. Whereas students are often at the stage of testing ideas and that task might be made rather more difficult if their participation could be openly viewed. Again, I am not totally sure on this point, or where it leaves the overall balance. I am more noting caution. Perhaps what is needed is a test case like the lectures, where the pressures are lower, to see what upshots arise, and use that information to form some tighter judgements about other cases.

  12. Both points are certainly taken here. The case with pharmaceuticals would perhaps be interesting from the point of view of considering a very different starting point, at least if we take as given the position they convey about necessary incentives for R&D. I wonder whether there may remain other ways to tinker with the system to work around the problem, though. For example, perhaps it might be the case that properly organised public funding could establish the same incentive structure for pharmaceutical companies whilst allowing the accrued knowledge to be disseminated. Something along those lines runs through the P2 proposal, I think.

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