A couple thoughts on the AsiaOnline translation of OpenCourseWare

So I posted this news item over on the OCWC blog, but given the touchiness of the whole “free” debate, I thought I’d put my own thoughts on the matter over here.

The first thing to realize is the Consortium has no position on for-profit ventures involving courseware. We don’t endorse them, we don’t attack them. And our members can decide on exactly how they wish to enforce their copyright — the Consortium requires that institutions release at least ten courses to non-commercial use — but beyond that institutions have discretion in how they choose to manage their licenses. It’s a baseline, not a line in the sand.

So with that off the table, let’s talk about commercial use.

I tend to not be as religious about it as some. I tend, for example, to see a difference between ad-funded efforts and resale efforts, and I think the share-alike clause tends to cover many concerns that the non-commercial does. Were I releasing something, I’m not entirely sure I’d forgo the non-commercial restriction — I think, quite frankly, it’d depend on the nature of what I was releasing. The goal would be to get it into the hands of those people that could use it in the most effective manner possible. To the extent commercial activity does that I’m in favor. To the extent it doesn’t, I’m opposed.

So, do commercial ventures ultimately aid or hinder the distribution of material? I think that ends up being a policy issue — not a philosophical one, which is why tracking these ventures like AsiaOnline ends up being so important. If we could get past the “free as in beer” tirades and start looking at some real world data we might actually get somewhere on this, or at least find some common ground.

That’s why I greet things like AsiaOnline with a combination of excitement and trepidation. I think the movement is young enough that we can bear to see how some of these things play out. The key here is not resistance, but vigilance.

I know, an edupunk forgoing resistance for vigilance … have I sold out already? But for every EMI there are a dozen Matador and Merge records, a dozen indie labels that make the revolution possible — how do we distinguish between the two? How do we foster innovation and distribution while preventing monopolization and appropriation? I’m may be accused of begging out, but I’m not entirely sure we have an answer on that yet. In the meantime, there are numerous ways to proceed, and that’s good.

7 thoughts on “A couple thoughts on the AsiaOnline translation of OpenCourseWare

  1. The objective of the Asia Online venture is to reduce what we call “information poverty” and allow new human populations access to “knowledge”. We are using Statistical Machine Translation to accelerate the rate at which this and many other kinds of knowledge becomes available in regions that we consider as lacking in knowledge content. For this effort to be successful it is necessary for the community to join in the initial conetnt that we put up on the web. Without community support it will be raw machine translation so this is more than just an ad revenue generation scheme. The objective is to get as much knowledge content into the hands of those who need it the most — people who are not proficient enough in English to use OCW in its base form. We are also translating the Wikipedia and hope that students will come and help clean up the translations and raise them to a level that can be considered human translation. IN the final analysis we will be evaluated on how many of these people we make contact with and how extensively the community that most directly benefits from this information engages to help us create an information resource that truly does serve the needs of the community.

  2. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for your thoughts. We welcome you to track the Asia Online model. One of the key goals our company was founded on was to reduce information poverty. OCW is one of many sources of content that we intent to make available in 11 Asian languages initially and others later. We intent to make all such content available free of charge. While we are a for-profit company, the funds we raise from advertising placed on these pages allows us to translate more content for these markets.

    If you are interested in more details on what we are doing, I would be happy to correspond with you via email or over Skype.


    Dion Wiggins
    Asia Online

  3. I personally think that the CC-NC license is incredibly flawed, since nobody seems to understand what it really means. I also think it’s weird that we would all be happy letting Harvard teach from our courses, even though they are the second richest non-profit in the world after the Vatican, and also charge very high tuition rates, but to let Phoenix university teach from the material would not be accessible… Perhaps this is partly due to a hangup in the US where for-profit education is seen as elitist… in Latin America and India, for example, there are many examples of private institutions providing affordable and good quality education where the public systems are failing…

    But that shouldn’t have to be the issue at all… Looking at the open source community, it is extremely easy to see what it has gained through commercial participation, and very hard to see what it has lost. The GPL license ensures that all content flows back to the community, and currently over 50% of the programmers working on the kernel for example, are paid by big companies.

    If Phoenix University wants to take MIT materials, improve it a fair amount (because much of it is not appropriate for distance teaching as is), and use it to teach for profit courses – so much the better, since under the SA, the content flows back to the community and can be used by anyone for free – and the only thing Phoenix is charging for, is the service of tutoring, testing, accrediting etc, which we all agree is not free.

    Note that I have no position on AsiaOnline per se – I looked at their site, but couldn’t quite understand what they would do or how it would work. But I actually think that removing the NC from the license is “the edupunk thing to do” 🙂

  4. Thank you all for your responses — sorry for not getting around to approving them until just now — I was busy enough at the conference that I forgot to check my personal blog.

    Stian — I think we’re on the same page. It’s weird in some ways to think of Harvard, one of the richest institutions in the world, as a non-commercial use whereas some entrepreneur who may want to dot-com the material is commercial.

    What struck me as the most helpful part of the open source movement was the idea that one makes money on services (commercial or no) but pushes the resulting developments back into the community. And as long as they do that, they are good. I think that probably still informs my understanding — or maybe, in this case, confuses it — that anybody has a right to make a living off of what they do, but that nobody owns the resulting artifacts of that work.

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