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Charles Nesson’s lunch at Berkman: what does it mean for a university to be “open”?

Charlie Nesson – who introduces himself as “Charles the Infuriator” – is chewing on an interesting new train of thought: the openness of universities. Charlie is the founder of the Berkman Center and often drags our center in interesting new intellectual directions. Larry Lessig dedicated Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace to Charlie, declaring, “For Charlie Nesson: Whose Every Idea Seems Crazy… For About A Year.”

(I’ve worked with Charlie for a few years now, and I find myself wondering whether the better way to think about Charlie’s ideas is “median craziness”. I think some ideas remain crazy for several years and others are non-crazy almost immediately, with median craziness of one year…)

Charlie is organizing a conference at the University this summer, asking the question, “How Open Will Harvard Be to Internet and Society?” Some examples make it a bit easier to understand what he’s asking:

– At Harvard’s business school, it’s forbidden to use Google to “solve” a case study by figuring out how the business actually turned out. Is this a broken educational model, where you need to shut out the openness of knowledge to make your teaching methods work? This expands to a larger question: do we need to rethink how classrooms work in an era where everyone is capable of being in an online space at the same time as they’re in a physical space?

– Does it make sense for scholars to use public money to do research, then hand that research over to a private company, which farms them out to other scholars who perform peer review – for free – then binds and sells the research for an awful lot of money? This model may have made sense years ago, but does it make sense in a digital age, or should Harvard move towards an Open Access model for publishing?

– How does corporate or government funding of research work to make parts of universities open and closed? How do we feel about closing off areas of knowledge due to the constraints of funding?

– Universities like MIT have taken big steps towards making their courses and software open and accessible to the wider world. Why have so few American universities embraced what’s available through these repositories?

Given these questions, Charlie invites the room to suggest their topics for this conference. The room is packed, and we get a wide range of ideas offered:

– Is there a need for closed spaces to encourage innovation? Are students in an open classroom willing to speak up the same way they would in an closed, private one?

– What makes a university somehow more trustworthy than a corporation or a government? Given that Harvard is as wealthy, burecratic and labyrinthine as many governments, why are we somehow a locus of openness?

– How do we balance the rights of paying students at a university with the opportunity of sharing knowledge with students of an “open”, virtual university?

– Should all government-funded research go into the public domain?

– Are classnotes a derivative work of the professor’s lecture?

– Given how important email is for university business, are we worried about how insecure and spoofable it is?

– How does openness affect a university’s brand? Is Harvard still Harvard if you can do all the coursework online?

Charlie offers his own question at the end of the brainstorm: Is the deal between Google and universities a good deal for the university world? He’s referring to the deal where Google has agreed to digitize a large portion of Harvard’s library and make the works available to the web via their search engine, and to Harvard as well. Charlie points out that the terms of the deal between Google and Harvard are secret, but that the deals with University of Michigan and the University of California are available online – he’s read the Michigan deal and refers to it as “one of the worst contracts I’ve ever read”.

The question Charlie and many others are asking about the Google deal have to do with whether the terms of the deal open up knowledge, or tether it to a single provider. Charlie wonders, “Can we hand the Golden Disk to Yahoo? “The Michigan deal appears to give rights to the scanned documents to Google and to Michigan, and specifies a fee for making those documents available to a third party, suggesting that we might be able to hand over the disk, but only for a price. This is a real concern to folks who feel like putting this knowledge in Google’s hands gives them disproportionate power… and the notion that the university’s “crown jewels” are subject to a secret agreement is an interesting caution for folks who argue that universities are more open than corporations or governments.

Hoping to provoke me, I suspect, Charlie asks me whether I would support a Harvard project to build “an open source metaverse”. He knows that I’m on record as being skeptical about the hype around the Second Life project. And he’s teaching a class with his daughter this semester which takes place, in part, in Second Life. Taking the bait, I argue (somewhat disingenuously) that there’s an open source alternative to Second Life in Open Croquet, that Charlie’s decision to run a Harvard class in Second Life gives Linden Labs a great deal of free publicity, and that Charlie must be mad to create intellectual property in a format that can’t be freely moved to another server. Hilarity ensues, culminating in Charlie miming his death from my vorpal rhetorical blows and collapsing to the floor.

(Because Charlie has a history of posting video of me on YouTube, I have high hopes that our exchange will be digitized and broadcast sometime soon. It was certainly the high point of my day.)

Basically, my argument was this: because Second Life objects, at present, can only run on the servers created by Linden Labs, Charlie is taking a big risk on a single company by supporting Linden. He could have thrown the weight and prestige of Harvard behind another project like Open Croquet – which, admittedly, is in an early state and has few users – which would benefit from the PR, the user feedback and the content created. Since Croquet is open source, written in Smalltalk and very extensible, it seems to jibe better with Charlie’s arguments about openness and the university than the Second Life platform. I get the sense that Charlie’s pretty sympathetic to this argument – it may be worth seeing if there’s a way to get Harvard to be an early adopter of the Croquet platform.

4 thoughts on “Charles Nesson’s lunch at Berkman: what does it mean for a university to be “open”?”

  1. A couple of random reactions to your comments / questions based on my years in academe and attempts to have online classes.

    1) One of the hugest travesties inherited from the Reagan years is the notion that risk or cost are appropriately socialized, but profit should be privatized. Of course government funding should mean that a) the taxpayer gets the same cut of any resulting profit as a private investor would, and b) publications or the like should be publicly accessible. Taxpayer-funded means that the taxpayer is part-owner!

    2)The lack of interest in MIT’s open classroom: a lot of the subject matter is very narrowly focused and at a level that is usable mainly at places like MIT. There aren’t very many of those. In some ways, it reminds me of the early days of the internet. Usenet, for instance, had vast amounts of excellent information on the finer points of programming, but if you tried looking up a biology topic, you’d find newsgroups for whether apricot seed oil really cured cancer or not. As the user base broadened, the information improved to the point where people hardly know how to use libraries any more. Open courseware will probably follow the same trajectory as more and more varied content becomes widely available.

    3) Should Harvard try to emulate MIT? For once, YES. As someone who went to Harvard, Harvard and the world can only gain if the tremendous ferment of knowledge in that place becomes available to everyone. What would a Harvard degree mean in that case? To me, the answer is blindingly obvious. A degree is conferred for work the student does, subject to interaction with other students and faculty. That’s very different from being able to read, or even play with, all the course materials on the web. The input of faculty time, whether it’s online or face to face, and the quality of a student’s work are what earn the degree. Being a registered student is different from auditing regardless of the venue.

    That said, I also think there is no real replacement for the mental electricity that you can feel in places like Harvard, when they’re at their best. There’s no way to get all of that online. In my ideal world, there’d be a requirement for a year, or maybe a semester, on location, even for an online degree.

    3) Re closed spaces and innovation. There was a fascinating article on this topic somewhere, I almost think it was in the excellent food magazine, Saveur. Someone was trying to figure out the relative strengths of “open source” innovation, where lots of people worked on a problem (I’ve also seen that called “crowdsourced”), versus the “lone thinker in the a room” model. The problem to be solved was the worldchanging issue of inventing a new best-selling cookie. The result, in a nutshell, was that group innovation worked very well to find improvements on existing recipes. However, it was pretty hopeless at coming up with truly new ideas. Their de novo inventions all suffered from the designed-by-a-committee syndrome. The lone thinkers, on the other hand, either came up with total duds, or–in one case–a brilliant idea that worked, after some polishing by the group.

    The take-home message seems to be that we need both approaches. If we go wholesale for crowdsourcing, we’re going to lose most of our true innovations. If we go wholesale for the opposite, we’re going to be stuck with a lot of lamebrained ideas that a bit of feedback could have prevented. There’s a need for both closed and open spaces.

  2. I am not sure that the debate should be on Second Life vs Open Croquet. I think one can have a conversation about open access/open education on both, with different valences.

    Let me explain – Open Croquet has been around for many years now, and it has not attracted as much attention as Second Life for various reasons. One of these is that Open Croquet seems to be tailored for serious applications right off the bat, it does not really have the “playful” attitude that brings people to Second Life and it does not show signs of a vibrant community. The appeal of these two applications is worlds away from the start, and the mindset with which people approach each of them makes a huge difference.

    That being said, I think Open Croquet, with its multimedia and application compatibility, has a far greater promise as an educational tool for most classes. What it still fails to create is a community or an audience that raises interesting issues through the sheer power of people communicating and collaborating in a new environment (see http://news.findlaw.com/prnewswire/20061006/06oct20061034.html )

    So, while Second Life might be a counter-intuitive platform for exhibiting an argument on open access, I think we still need to prove that 1) 3D platforms can be a successful teaching medium and 2) what exactly are the key points to using a 3D platform instead of any other tool? Once we can fully state that and the conditions under which it makes sense to teach a class in a 3D environment, each teacher can choose the world based on the course specifications. It’s much like a video game, in a sense. Each platform offers a particular set of benefits to a particular set of needs.

    As open-ended MMOGs appear, we might see this split even better, with various “flavors”: some focusing on facilitating the business aspect, some on education, and some still on entertainment or content creation.

  3. How about an open call for papers for participants at this, or other Berkman Center conferences? That could be posted at the IP Conferences announcements at the Madisonian blog, and announced via the blogosphere.

  4. Just a note, Second Life / Linden Labs have open sourced their client software, and if I am not mistaken they will be open sourcing their server software as well:

    That said, I would love it if universities embraced Croquet rather than just Second Life, but when I tried Croquet, I just couldn’t figure out how to do much of anything. I jumped around a world or two, but there was no one there. I think it defaults to connecting to other user in your LAN, rather than users around the world.

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