Around the Web: Access, Open and Closed

This week’s big news in technology and education was Blackboard’s announcement that it is acquiring Moodle, and that Moodle’s platform will remain open-source. (Inside Higher Ed offers a thorough breakdown of what the announcement means; another article suggests that Blackboard may have switched focus because the real value for LMS services lies in the data they can collect—in the same way that Facebook’s real product is its users and their information, Blackboard’s real product might be the stats it can collect on a college’s students and instructors.)Keys

Blackboard’s embrace of open-source options raises the question of open-source and open-access in academia in general. Higher education is supposed to be a place of free and open inquiry, but access to that inquiry remains a vexed subject.

Academic publishing, for example, uses a lot of non-disclosure agreements, subscription bundling, and other tools to limit access, but the culture of scholarly research is moving in the opposite direction, becoming increasingly open. One way for publishers to adapt is to stop bundling content into journal subscriptions or expensive hardbound textbooks and to adopt instead a disaggregated model that allows students to purchase texts a chapter at a time. If instructors can mix and match resources to create their own customized course materials, everyone wins. This is the opposite of what a Texas community college system wants to do, and faculty are protesting.

Copyright infringement is a concern: one open educational resource (OER) startup is being sued by textbook publishers. “There’s a lot of opportunity for someone to build an OER learning platform — to curate materials for students, to make that content interactive, modifiable, modular, and social, to help OER textbooks be more than PDFs,” but the publishers are claiming copyright infringement in cases where headings, sub-headings, and the organization of materials mimics copyrighted textbooks. Joshua Kim reflects on 5 things that fears of copyright suits prevents us from doing with our digital course materials

There’s another kind of access to consider, too, and that’s access to college in the first place, if for no other reason than that higher education levels correlate with better health and life expectancy. In a thoughtful essay, the Hopper sisters weigh the advantages of higher education against the very real risks that working-class students must take. Something the Hoppers touch on—the challenges that low-income students must overcome not merely to start college but to finish it—is proven by a 2011 study showing that although college attendance rates have risen steadily since 1980, the disparities in attendance and persistence rates have also increased.

A new study suggests that income disparity may correlated with cheating—at least, people in states with wider income gaps are more likely to Google “buy term paper” or to visit websites that aid cheating on coursework.

Meanwhile, the real value of a degree continues to be contested. Job prospects are looking better for the class of 2012, but an in-depth snapshot of where one class of 2011 graduates are now remains sobering. Schools are having a harder time finding students even as they offer them larger “discounts” on tuition, in the form of increased financial aid. (This is not true for elite institutions, which continue to report single-digit admission rates. Harvard’s was 5.9% this year.)

And more college courses continue to be made available online for free. MIT professors reflect on what MITx does and does not give students access to, while some professors have turned to Kickstarter to fund their free online courses.

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