Justin Reich Goes to Work for HarvardX

Today I learned that Justin Reich is going to HarvardX as a research fellow. That’s good news for Harvard and open access online efforts in general, since Justin is nothing if not ambivalent about recent developments, and the CourdacityX space needs more ambivalent people.  The fact they have brought him reaffirms my belief that edX is the organization in this space that may, in the end, actually influence higher education for the better.

Justin is perhaps best known for some of his work on openness and equity. I covered one of those studies on Hapgood a couple years ago (see “Openness as a Privilege Multiplier“). If you haven’t seen Justin on this issue, you might want to take a couple minutes to watch the short video below, an Ignite presentation titled “Will Free Benefit the Rich?“:

I’m hoping if you’ve got this far downpage you’ve fired up the video. In case you haven’t, here’s a quick summary: we tend to think of openness as a leveler of playing fields, but that’s not necessarily the case. Openness in some forms can increase the gap between the haves and the have nots. Implementation matters, licensing matters, context matters.

But certainly MOOCs don’t operate that way, right? Well… about that. Justin explains:

And my deepest concern is that the people who will benefit from these new initiatives are those who already are privileged and advantaged. As I’ve argued since my doctoral research, there is a very real possibility that new learning experiences made widely accessible on the Internet will disproportionately benefit the affluent, who have the financial, social, and technical capital to take advantage of these new opportunities. The early reports from the first round of xMOOCs certainly contribute to these concerns—if 30% of Edinburgh’s MOOC participants have BAs and an additional 40% have BA’s and a graduate degree, then MOOCs may be creating new opportunities for lifelong learning for the affluent at a much greater rate than they are providing new learning pathways for the under-served.

Again, structured wrongly, openness is a privilege multiplier, a factor which, when applied both to rich and poor indiscriminately, can exacerbate social inequality and injustice.

What’s the solution? The first step is to see the argument that the universities and faculty  powering these initiatives bear no responsibility for the social impacts of their products as shockingly unethical nonsense. Differences in small things like licensing can have massive effects on whether openness serves as a multiplier or a leveler, and the terms of that licensing are controlled by the participants.

I’d point out, for example, that in the United States 66% of all last year’s high school graduates enrolled in some sort of college, in no small part because Pell Grants cover 99% of the cost of community college. Poorer students, however, tend to not make it through to graduation,  because the schools the underprivileged end up at are horribly under-resourced. In such a world, versions of openness which prohibit free reuse of materials by institutions such as public community colleges but allow free use by interested college graduates can hardly by seen as social justice endeavors.

Justin, I think, gets that. Of all the things that drew him to Harvard, he points to the HarvardX IP “legal hackathon”, an event in which the law school and other entities pulled together students and experts to design the set of content policies for HarvardX which would best serve the stated mission of EdX? Not surprisingly, his IP design team there came out with exactly the sort of licensing for xMOOCs that we’ve long pushed for here: reuse centered policies that allow, among other things, the systems we’ve set up to help struggling students to use materials that could help those students.

There’s lot more to like about Justin and his work, and while research appointments can sometimes be a cheap nod to issues rather than a commitment to engage seriously with them, I think that such a tack with him would be ill-advised. As he so eloquently puts it in his post:

As I start with HarvardX, I think of Henry David Thoreau’s scholarly commitment as he ventured to the shores of Walden Pond: “and if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world.” But, I’m hopeful that it won’t all be meanness. I think we can take the hype surrounding MOOCs and harness that energy to create some valuable online learning experiences, without getting lead astray by the hype.

I’m not a 100% sure how this ends up either, but I feel considerably better about the future today.

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