Should information be free? (Or: giving away your education)

Picture by Calistobreeze on flickr, used under Creative Commons.
Tony Pittman of Real Tech is in an interesting conversation regarding whether or not information should be free and, specifically what is the model being developed by universities that are places courses online. The commentator wrote:

Based on what I heard about Harvard and MIT offering free classes, I extended the question a bit and asked myself, “Should information, namely higher education, be free?” The goal of these universities and others, according to the OpenCourseWare Consortium, is to advance formal and informal learning through the worldwide sharing and use of free, open, high-quality education materials organized as courses. I struggle to understand their strategy.

It so happens that this morning Cory Doctorow (he of Boing Boing fame and an author who makes many of his books available for free see other posts on my site) is also discussing this topic. He notes

“Information wants to be free” is lazy, stupid shorthand for a complex and nuanced discussion that can be readily found [mfn]And someone replied “Information does not like to be anthropomorphized.” I tend to agree.[/mfn]

It is indeed complex and nuanced, but one difficulty of being “readily found” means that it a clear discussion is not always obvious. I intend to offer just one or two comments of my own, concluding with thoughts relating to the academy specifically.

Intrinsic Values

I think we need to begin by first asking if there is anything intrinsic about information that requires that it be free, freely available, without cost, however you like to define the term “free” in this context. The answer is, of course, no. Information is knowledge and, as they say, knowledge is power. But there is nothing about the nature of information that necessitates its “freedom.”

We could, of course, shift the question and ask should information be free. This then becomes an ethical discussion and it can be a fruitful one. I think it is clear that some information should be made freely available and our society has made that determination. We tell people about approaching storms, teach them CPR (although you sometimes have to pay for the training), literacy programs, and so on. In those instances there is a greater good [mfn]I can never say the phrase “greater good” without thinking of The Incredibles.”[/mfn] that is served by making such information freely available. It is also information whose value is found in its dissemination rather than in its acquisition.

Not all information should be free

By “acquisition” what I refer to is the cost of acquiring such information in the first place. The development of knowledge is not a costless endeavor. I am not even considering the tuition that our students pay for their university courses, rather I refer to the cost associated with research, writing, and sometimes publication. We gain knowledge through a process whereby someone has to take the time to investigate the matter at hand and that time has to be made available through the financial support of the researcher. Sure, there are those who make brilliant discoveries on their own time, but for most major advances in knowledge dedicated time is necessary. Having made such investments it is not surprising that there should be a cost associated with sharing the information acquired. Thus tuition, books, and so on.

Yet now we find a number of universities making course content available for free. How does that make sense? And, to the point of Tony’s commentator, won’t that undermine the value of the degrees formally offered to paying students at those institutions? Yes, it certainly would, but none of those institutions are going to offer complete degrees for no cost. A sampling of courses, special lectures and publications, are often made freely available (see my doctoral dissertation and most of my articles on this site, for example) for a number of reasons. The two primary reasons are because it is information that is useful to the public and the sharing of the information brings good publicity to the institution. In some cases, the research that yielded the results may also have been funded with the explicit purpose of making the information available to the public. Universities are often seen as elite bastions far removed from the public, even those with an explicit public mission, and such offerings of courses and videos brings a kind of good will that no advertising firm could ever provide.

I think it highly unlikely that these institutions will ever make an entire degree available in such a fashion, and not just because it doesn’t make any business sense. Degrees are certifications of accomplishment, they are statements that the students have received a certain level not only of education but examination. Universities and colleges are accredited to ensure that the degrees offered carry such assurances of quality and a free degree, with no examination, no faculty interaction, would not carry that authority.

So information is sometimes free, but often it is not. And I do not think that this is necessarily a bad thing. If there were no market then there would be no investment to generate new information. So just as we have generic drugs after patents expire, we find that our general, free knowledge base is growing as what was once proprietary is now common knowledge. Not a bad thing, in my opinion.

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