Access to free courses is a freedom of speech issue

October 19, 2012 | Leave a comment

ClassroomThe Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the State of Minnesota is requiring any degree-granting educational institution providing an online course to pay a registration fee:

Tricia Grimes, a policy analyst for the state’s Office of Higher Education, said letters had been sent to all postsecondary institutions known to be offering courses in Minnesota. She said she did not know specifically whether letters had been sent to other MOOC providers like edX and Udacity, and officials there did not immediately respond to questions from The Chronicle.

Slate adds more detail about the purpose of the law:

State law prohibits degree-granting institutions from offering instruction in Minnesota without obtaining permission from the office and paying a registration fee. (The fee can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand, plus a $1,200 annual renewal.) That means that it’s Stanford, Columbia, Michigan, the University of Melbourne, et al. that are violating Minnesota law by partnering with Coursera to offer courses that Minnesota residents can take for free.

This seems counter-intuitive to me. Accreditation is important; there are plenty of non-accredited degree scams out there. But banning a free course that carries no degree credits? I’m not a lawyer, but that appears to be a First Amendment violation. After all, that’s all a free course really is: expression. A sensible requirement might be for the courses to clearly say they don’t carry credit, in order to protect consumers, but an outright ban is fundamentally counter-productive.

Of course, there is likely to be a time when the Internet disrupts the institutional accreditation process, just as it’s disrupted many other gatekeeper processes. That will raise some serious issues: I think accreditation really is important to protect both students and employers, and I think it’s fair to say that many online course startups are positioning themselves in readiness for this change. Finding a way to protect the job market, students and educators will be important. But restricting access to information is never the answer – and particularly not here, where knowledge from traditionally expensive institutions is being made available to everybody.

Update: the Minnesotan Office of Higher Education has responded to the furore:

“When the legislature convenes in January, my intent is to work with the Governor and Legislature to appropriately update the statute to meet modern-day circumstances,” said Pogemiller [director of the Office]. “Until that time, I see no reason for our office to require registration of free, not-for-credit offerings.”

There’s more over at the Washington Post.

Living sustainably in a digital society: is it even possible?

August 23, 2012 | 2 comments

Desert tankI had an interesting conversation about sustainable lifestyles on Twitter this morning.

I believe that climate change is a major threat to our planet, and that we’re in danger of reaching a tipping point beyond which there is no return. More generally, because my personal mission statement is to have a positive impact on the world, I’m conscious that I don’t want to make an unsustainable amount of waste.

Which of course, I do. Although I try to be a good citizen – I consume locally-produced products, I take public transport rather than driving whenever possible – I’m aware of my relatively large carbon footprint. In particular, I fly a fair amount, often across large distances, I run computer servers, which by necessity are switched on all the time, and I buy electronics, which have an appalling environmental impact. (It’s sometimes easy to forget how much of an impact computing has, because it feels clean – the impacts are out of sight, out of mind. Truthiness in consumption.)

I travel less than I could, of course. A lot of my meetings happen over Google+ Hangouts or Skype, which let me see people without having to actually be in the same room with them. BART makes traveling across the bay to San Francisco simple and relatively clean (PDF link). But I do own a car, which I drive two or three times a week, and I will be flying both to XOXO in Portland, and to Austin, next month. It’s by far the cheapest way to get there.

And that’s the kicker. I could run the server that powers this website through a renewably-powered web host like AISO, for example, but I don’t. A dedicated server through a green host is simply much more expensive than through my existing host. Every financial transaction counts, particularly in the midst of a financial crisis, and I need to think about my costs.

Because flying is cheaper than taking the train – a ludicrous state of affairs – people will fly. It’s as simple as that. Making any other decision is solely the domain of people who don’t need to worry about money, and that’s not most of us. Anyone who’s run a startup knows that the bottom line is important. The key is making products and services available that don’t kill the earth, but are also economically competitive. They’ve got to be affordable. That’s the real-world requirement for most people.

A lot of our environmentally unsustainable practices are due to the economies of bulk production. My hope is that the web can help with this: because it’s now easier to connect ourselves together than ever before, and take payments through awesome services like Square, theoretically local producers can make themselves more available to local customers than ever before. There’s less of a need to ship many products – particularly food – from half a world away, or to make many things in very centralized ways. But the reality is also that, without a Stargate at our disposal, materials still need to be shipped. Everything isn’t available everywhere. That’s just how the world is. (I’m lucky that I live in California, which is a major food producer – there are a great deal more local resources than there were, for example, when I lived in Scotland.)

Technology can help in other ways. Meat is unsustainable. I’m not a vegetarian, but I’ve tried Beyond Meat, and I like it. I also like their mission, which is to create a product that is healthier and more environmentally sustainable than meat, but also cheaper. That’s smart, and is exactly the kind of pragmatic thinking that will change peoples’ lifestyles. I don’t think that people are going to be moving from chicken to reclaimed pea protein in droves, at least not immediately, but I respect that they’ve considered peoples’ real-life needs, and aren’t creating an elitist product. (And I do honestly think it’s pretty tasty.)

Ultimately, though, we’ve created a society based around production and consumption, and we’re all active participants. In fact, we love it – and that’s okay. What we can do, though, is understand that a more efficient infrastructure is also more sustainable – both economically and environmentally. Well-built public transport would lower our costs as business people, stimulate economic growth by encouraging trade, and would also lower our emissions. Better datacenters and less wasteful methods of production would reduce our costs, and also reduce the impact of the products and services we consume.

But it also requires longer-term thinking. Products that consume less electricity cost less in the long term, but might have a higher up-front price. We might pay a little more tax as a percentage to get a high-speed rail link up and running, but we will be repaid by the economic benefits. Modern distribution methods require money to install, but they eventually more than pay for themselves. We need a more efficient infrastructure to do business in the 21st century, and it just so happens that establishing that will be better for our planet – which in turn will result in fewer of the negative effects of climate change and resource depletion, and will also leave us correspondingly wealthier.

The politicians and businessmen who stand in the way of this are in it for the short-term, and are in it for themselves. It’s not just that they want to spend the money on infrastructure upgrades – they want to keep economic value locked up legacy gatekeeper structures, and prevent us from doing business on our terms. I’m not sure it’s possible to live sustainably in a digital society, but it can be, and it should be.

We’ve got to keep moving forward.

CISPA: Act now

April 26, 2012 | 3 comments

The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act just passed in the House, during a vote that was moved up a day and staged during the NFL draft. It vastly expands the already onerous act into one that allows significant domestic surveillance.

As TechDirt notes:

Basically this means CISPA can no longer be called a cybersecurity bill at all. The government would be able to search information it collects under CISPA for the purposes of investigating American citizens with complete immunity from all privacy protections as long as they can claim someone committed a “cybersecurity crime”. Basically it says the 4th Amendment does not apply online, at all. Moreover, the government could do whatever it wants with the data as long as it can claim that someone was in danger of bodily harm, or that children were somehow threatened—again, notwithstanding absolutely any other law that would normally limit the government’s power.

This bill must be blocked in the Senate. If you’re a US citizen, you need to call your Senator now. This action list over on Reddit is fantastic, or, once again, Grassroutes makes this easy. Just click a button below:

(If you’re reading the feed, you probably won’t see the Grassroutes widget above. Click here to see the buttons, and to get the code to paste the widget on your own site.

Web, the people

April 15, 2012 | 2 comments

Armenian ParliamentIf there was any doubt that the Internet is radically changing democracy, check this out:

Spain’s new political party, the Partido de Internet, is a policy-agnostic political party that makes its decisions based on the will of a community based on Agora, a virtual parliament platform.

PDI is a policy-agnostic political party that does not have, nor will ever have, a political ideology. It has a single and radical proposal: PDI elected representatives will vote in congress according to what the people have previously voted through the internet using Agora.

[...] Agora is a software project with a clear aim to improve our democratic system. The project is well underway but still not complete, and is driven by voluntary work donated generously by members of our team. We welcome anyone, developers, researchers, security enthusiasts, designers, or anyone else who shares our vision, to collaborate and help bring this vision closer to reality.

Representative democracy as we know it today emerged because it was unfeasible for each citizen to participate directly. The Internet fundamentally changes that, and reveals political parties to be gatekeepers: unnecessary levels of organizational abstraction that are unduly influenced by capital rather than the will of the people they declare themselves to represent.

This is a sea change in how government works, and incumbents can see it coming. It’s worth examining the UK’s Internet surveillance plans in this light. David Cameron said that monitoring emails, web use and phone calls would protect against “terrorist threats that [...] that we still face in this country”. Could that include citizens peacefully organizing to push for greater democracy?

I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to also look at policies regarding anonymity and privacy online in this light. Tracking doesn’t just relate to advertising; it’s also always been used to monitor political dissent (alongside agent provocateurs). This is a subject that relates to how we are governed and – though it sounds almost insanely melodramatic to say it – the balance of world power. Owning and controlling your own data needs to be a democratic right.

I’ll be watching the PDI with interest; together with the Pirate Party, they represent a very interesting new phase in how technology and society interact. And just as news, publishing, entertainment and retail have been disrupted, the incumbent political parties had better take notice.

Photo of the Armenian Parliament by PanARMENIAN Photo, released under a Creative Commons license.

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