Why Universities Shouldn't Create "Something like YouTube" (Part One)

I was recently interviewed by a Canadian journalist, Alexandre Cayla-Irigoyen Chef de pupitre - Societe Monde, about OpenCourseWare, Collective Intelligence, and the modern university. Somehow, the interview questions sparked me to dig deep on some ideas that I hadn't really formulated before and I figured the answers might prove interesting to blog readers. So I asked the reporter if I could run the transcript here, once he had gotten what he needed from it for his story.

I read your book (Convergence Culture) and also a couple of other of your publications. You argue that, right now, the school system is failing its children because they are learning more experimenting outside class than in it. Do you think that Internet and the tools that are being developed will help change this situation ?

The internet is improving opportunities for learning for at least some portion

of our youth, but most of what is most valuable about it is locked outside of

schools. For example, many American schools block all access to YouTube, to

social network sites, even to blogging tools, all of which are key sites for

learning. Schools are discouraging young people from using Wikipedia rather

than engaging with it as an opportunity to learn about the research process and

to engage with critical discussions around issues of credibility. The schools are

often frightened of anything that looks like a game to the point that they lock

out many powerful tools which simulate real world processes, encourage a 'what

if' engagement with history, or otherwise foster critical understanding of the


As long as they react to these developments as risks rather than resources, then those kids who have access to this online world are going to be de-skilled as they enter the schoolhouse gates and those kids who don't have access are going to be left further behind because they have been abandoned by the institutions which are otherwise best situated to address the digital divide in terms of technical access and the participation gap in terms of access to skills and experiences. So, yes, informal learning is taking place outside of school for those who are able to access it but the refusal of schools to engage with it further amplifies the inequalities between information haves and have nots.

Can such changes be implemented in university classes? Flexibility seems to be the key aspect of this new approach whereas the university classroom is typically governed by a rigid student-teacher relation (at the undergrad level at least).

Whatever their limitations in terms of bureaucratic structure, most university

instructors have much greater flexibility to respond to these challenges than the average public high school. Unfortunately, by the time we get to college, these gaps in experiences, skills, and resources will have already had a near lethal impact on those kids who are being left behind. It isn't just that we will need to have a head start program to get them the technical skills they need to deploy these technologies. It is going to be much harder to give them the sense of empowerment and entitlement needed to allow them to feel fully part of the online world. They are going to be much less likely to play and experiment with the new technologies because they will be afraid of failing and looking dumb in front of classmates who will have been using these tools for more than a decade.

That said, we certainly do want to integrate these skills into college classes, because they are key to higher order thinking an research in most of our disciplines, because doing so is the best way of reaching a generation that expects to be able to participate in social networks and manipulate data through simulations. But we shouldn't delude ourselves into thinking we can fix a decade's worth of neglect through the public schooling system.

How can an institution recreate the type of communities you spoke about in your book ?

The kinds of communities I discussed in the book are what Cory Doctorow calls "ad-hoc-cracies." They emerge quickly in response to shared interests and concerns. They last as long as people need the community to work through a common problems or query. They vanish when they are no longer useful to their members. They are radically interdisciplinary or I'd prefer, "undisciplined," in that they draw together people with many different expertises and they deploy social networks which observe few of the barriers to interaction we experience in the physical world to bring people together who should be working together. They develop informal yet very powerful systems for vetting information and for carrying out deliberation.

Almost none of this holds with the average college class which has a fixed duration, a prearranged sequence of materials and problems, a disciplined border, a geographically narrowed location, etc. So, if we want to integrate these into our classes, they require

much greater flexibility in imagining what constitutes an educational context. They certainly involve developing projects which span disciplines, which link several classes together and requires students to build on each other's work, and which may straddle multiple universities dispersed in space. All of this is easier said than done, of course, but we should be experimenting with how to achieve this goals since at this point it is even hard to point to many real world examples of what this would look like.

MIT has the OpenCourseWare program that seems to follow a more open logic. Does MIT have other programs that would help it achieve (or create) a more open, flexible and creative environment ?

The Open Courseware Initiative has very worthy goals -- indeed, the vision

behind it is deeply inspiring to me. Universities like MIT should be opening up their resources to the planet. We should being supporting independent learners and providing materials to support education in parts of the world which do not have what major research institutions have to offer. The scale on which Open Courseware is operating now is astonishing and a real tribute to the people who developed it.

That said, I do not myself participate in Open Courseware. I freely give away my own content through our various blogs, podcasts, and online materials. But MIT has failed to assert a strong Fair Use defense which allows instructors to meaningfully quote from and repurpose existing materials as part of their instructional process. As a media scholar, my teaching centers on helping students understand other people's media content and if I can't quote from and share that content with the users of the Open Courseware, I can not meaningfully reproduce my instructional practices online. MIT had an opportunity to be a leader in the arguments about Fair Use, especially given the good will they have gotten through Open Courseware, yet they have chosen to take a very timid and conservative legal approach to these matters and as a consequence, I feel like it severely compromises the goals and ideals of the Open Courseware initiative.

I am thus a conscientious objector in my relation to this project. I am going into this here not to slam the Open Courseware people but to suggest that the ideals of free distribution of content by educational institutions are compromised by the current intellectual property regime and that we are not going to be able to meaningfully achieve the full ambitions of such a project until we develop stronger defenses around Fair Use.

At the present time, MIT is thinking about its next step in its Internet strategy (after the OpenCourseWare project), what are the options ? What should a university try to implement ?

Many universities are trying to figure out how they can build "something like YouTube" to support their educational activities. Most of them end up building things that are very little like YouTube in that they tend to lock down the content and make it hard to move into other spaces and mobilize in other conversations. In a sense, these university based sites are about disciplining the flow of knowledge rather than facilitating it. As I think about what makes YouTube YouTube, I see a number of factors:

  • Anyone can submit content at anytime and thus doesn't have to operate from a base of academic and institutional authority. It respects multiple kinds of expertise, understands people are differently motivated, and appreciates that information can be posted for many different reasons.
  • YouTube content can be embedded on any website, blog, or social network page. It is spreadable and it gets value as it gets inserted into these various contexts, because they represent different social communities which are having ongoing conversations. YouTube sees information as something that can be used, not something that is simply stored.
  • YouTube provokes responses. Indeed, the most valuable content on YouTube is content which inspires other users to talk back, reframing and repurposing materials, coming at them from many different angles.
  • The content on YouTube can be reconfigured many different ways. It is not part of a structured curriculum; rather, it is modular, nonliner, unstructured. And as such, we are encouraged to play with it rather than being disciplined to approach it in set ways.

    So, I don't know for sure what the next stage of an academic content system looks like but my own sense is that it should look MORE like YouTube and less like what university lawyers and department heads think will be "something like YouTube".