A failure of ownership

Student Demonstration (07) - 22Nov07, Paris (France)

In writing my digital scholarship book several themes keep recurring. One that I hadn't really set out to explore, but find depressingly persuasive is that of a failure of ownership by scholars over their own practice. This is particularly related to their use of technology to help refine their ways of working. Inevitably this has meant we have outsourced functions to for-profit companies. There may not be anything intrinsically wrong with this, I'm happy for a company to run the catering facilities for instance. But for complex activities that go to the heart of scholarship, once we outsourced them we became reliant on them, and effectively lost control. Here are three examples of this in action:

  1. VLEs – the central role of elearning was underestimated by many and so we looked for simple solutions. The commercial VLEs offered this, but our return was an attempt by Blackboard to patent the very idea of elearning, and of increasingly costly contracts. Because the VLE became so embedded in institutional systems it became almost impossible to overthrow once it was in place.
  2. Tenure, assessment and publications – as I've mentioned in an earlier post, the complexity of measuring excellence in different fields was outsourced to the peer-review process. This placed publishers in a central position in academia, since they controlled the routes to career progression. Related to this was the manner in which scholars bowed to governmental pressures for assessment exercises which sought to quantify the quality of research. This reinforced the publishers' position since their journals were linked directly to institutional funding.
  3. Publication – many professional societies and university presses handed over their publications to for-profit publishing firms, effectively outsourcing the process, the proceeds of which they would then have to buy back. As Edwards and Shulenberger suggest the relationship with publishers operated successfully when it was seen as a fair exchange, a ‘gift economy’, but, they claim “beginning in the late 1960s and early '70s, this gift exchange began to break down. A few commercial publishers recognized that research generated at public expense and given freely for publication by the authors represented a commercially exploitable commodity.” In Clarke's analysis of publishing costs he reports that an ejournal article published by a for-profit costs around $3400 whereas one published by a non-profit professional society costs around $730. The difference is largely because of the expensive software the commercial publisher has developed to maintain their competitive advantage and "their much greater investment in branding, customer relationship management and content protection." None of these seem to me to be related to scholarship.

George Siemens has argued that we should take ownership of the open education debate before it is too late, and given the above history, I would say he is right. The message I take away from the above is that we allowed this to happen because we failed to engage with the required technology. Large scale open source projects could have (and in cases such as OJS and Moodle have been successful) solved many of these problems and the overall cost to universities would have been much less than being at the mercy of commercial companies for whom scholarship is not their primary interest. The type of resistance we saw, for example, to the very concept of elearning, often on the grounds of commercialisation of education, did not prevent it, and in many ways played directly into their hands. Far better is to take the attitude of inventing your own future.

I'm not against commercial partnerships in education, for instance many of the free services I like to promote seem to me better for being not developed in education (eg Flickr), but we should be aware of what it is we are handing over. As we face the question of 'what do we do about web 2.0/cloud computing/social media?' then a full understanding of what it can do is essential, and simply handing over the problem to someone else will not serve us well.


  1. Jake says:

    hey, I like this

  2. This is an incredibly important point that can apply to so many other things in education including curriculum development and teacher training.
    The problem is not having for-profit enterprises (and this includes charities who often use their education efforts to generate profit) in the mix, the problem is that their version of for-profit enterprise was borne in the selfishness is good for all nonsense originating in the 80s. For-profit enterprise in education should always have the public good as the first priority and if profit can only be made at the expense of the public good, this enterprise must be excluded. See here for an example of the possible consequences: http://www.onthemedia.org/transcripts/2010/11/19/03.

  3. Martin says:

    Absolutely Dominik, I have no problem with for-profit companies working with education – they often do things better than we do in education. But the issue is when we hand over crucial functions to them and they see education as a cash cow.

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