Is OCW a “shovel-ready infrastructure project”?

More on this later, but I wanted to throw this out to see if anyone had any thoughts on it.

You’ve probably heard that to stave off the next Great Depression, the government will intervene in the form of a massive stimulus package, focused on infrastructure.

What gets interesting is not that the government may need to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to get us out of this, but that there don’t seem to be enough places to spend it. Here’s Krugman on that point, several days ago:

Infrastructure spending will take time to get going — a new Goldman Sachs report suggests that projects that are “shovel-ready” are probably only a few tens of billions worth, and that a larger effort would take much of a year to get going. Meanwhile, it’s very questionable how much effect tax rebates will have on consumer demand. So it may be hard for stimulus to get much traction until late 2009 — and that’s even if Congress goes along, which may be a problem given all the bad analysis and disinformation out there.

You can see the problem — you want to spend on infrastructure, because infrastructure builds future economic success while employing people in the near term. People get employed building a light rail system, for instance, and when it’s finished it attracts business, cuts down on fuel consumption, lowers road maintenance costs, and allows employers to draw from a broader employee pool.  But there’s only so many light rail plans (and other construction plans out there) that are “shovel-ready” – designs have to be approved, things priced out, etc.

While I know construction is the gold standard of infrastructure — and a particularly effective tool for broad stabilization of the economy — I wonder if just a sliver of money could be made available for a shovel-ready educational project: opencourseware.

As Wiley and others have pointed out, OCW fits the infrastructure description. The production of OCW is a capital expense, and the American public would be left at the end of the investment with a tangible good (or set of tangible goods), regardless of whether the project continued (and this part is the key to successful stimulus — hiring 6,000 teachers only to lay them off at the end of the year does long term harm as a stimulus, whereas hiring 6,000 people to produce educational materials does not). And the same way that new roads and new cables opened up broad productivity gains in previous eras, open educational resources are likely to create benefits for some time to come.

Is it shovel-ready? I think so. The stimulus could fund a broadly horizontal project. For every school that can get 10 professors to agree to release their materials, have the federal government fund one OCW staff member. And since we’re looking to invest as much money as fast as possible, twenty professors gets you two staff members, and so on.

At that level of staffing, the demands placed on central IT should be minimal. The type of work is lightly technical, and happens to be a useful experience for any light technical worker who has been laid off and looking to broaden their skill set. There’s a strong OCW community already in place to provide newbies guidance — which should reduce the strain on central IT (or Academic Affairs, if that’s where it is run from).

I doubt this would be a huge stimulus, but it could be one small place where the stimulus might go. My back of the envelope calculation on it says it could put anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 people to work who would in the space of a year produce anything from 20,000 to 200,000 courses or other educational materials.

Definitely worth thinking about — a stimulus project that in one year catalogs the content of almost any course one could imagine, all across the U.S., while keeping the newly unemployed insured and off the unemployment rolls.

What’s not to like?

(as always, everything I say here is my own opinion, and does not represent the views of my employer, the OpenCourseWare Consortium…)

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7 Comments on “Is OCW a “shovel-ready infrastructure project”?”

  1. Molly says:

    This is a really interesting way to think about open courseware. While I think it’s unlikely that we’ll actually get a project like the one you describe into a stimulous package, I like this idea a lot. Framing OCW as a shovel-ready infrastructure project is a neat way to talk about the potential for public investment in education. Not just building the schools and training the teachers, but actually developing the content, too.

  2. Molly says:

    There’s an article in the New York Times today that focuses on this same idea – education as infrastructure – but with an emphasis on making sure that the stimulus package includes jobs that women usually have (teaching) in addition to jobs that men usually have (construction). Though the focus is different I think it reinforces your argument.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/09/opinion/09hirshman.html

  3. Mike says:

    Wow, that’s a great article, b/c it gets to the core — has it been so long since we’ve done national infrastructure that our assumptions are outdated?

    There are a lot of legitimate reasons why construction makes great infrastructure investment — but an awful lot has happened since Eisenhower built the interstate highway system. Time for a re-evaluation on all fronts.

    Thanks for that link, really great.

  4. Tracy says:

    I agree–open courseware would be intellectual capital (or is this what “social capital” refers to? I have to learn what that is one of these days) that the public would benefit from, in the same way we now enjoy bridges, posters, and photos made in WPA projects.

  5. Tracy says:

    This is off topic a bit, but I’m wondering what you think about this, Mike. I’ve noticed that one of my alma maters, Smith College, is now using the free course management software, Moodle. I’m thinking that schools such as my current institution, which are cash-strapped and using clunky old versions of Web CT, would save money by hiring a hotshot instructional technology trainer to show staff and faculty how to use something like Moodle and just stop spending money on licenses for Blackboard and Web CT. Am I crazy to think that this would be a money saving move?

  6. Mike says:

    Well, the jury is out on the money saving piece, if you are going only for WebCT feature-for-feature replacement. But the truth is there is a lot of development around Moodle lately — it’s quickly become a darling among the DIY education crowd. SO as you move forward you’ll find that moodle will evolve with you for basically free, while WebCT will push you into a Blackboard upgrade.

    That’s really the dirty secret of LMS’s — stay within the limits of the antiquated versions and they are not very costly, but dare to ask for something like blog integration, OCW compatibility, or custom facebook apps, and suddenly you need the more expensive do-hickey.

    So short answer — when it comes time to upgrade, go to Moodle, and the fiscal benefit will be very very clear.

    Or go for it now on principle.

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