Law in the Internet Society
Food for thought from the NYT. It's a powerful point about equity. But, note the implicit assumption of a zero-sum game, that investment of "intellectual capital" at top schools means underinvestment at less prestigious schools. In a zero marginal cost world, however, at least with respect to knowledge, that proposition is false: if we write once, we can read everywhere.

Just as the concentration of wealth at the very top reduces wealth at the bottom, the aggressive hoarding of intellectual capital in the most sought-after colleges and universities has curtailed our investment in less prestigious institutions. There’s no curricular trickle-down effect. The educator E. D. Hirsch Jr. has pointed to a trend he labels the Matthew Effect, citing the Biblical injunction: “ ‘For unto every one that hath shall be given and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.’ We’ve lifted up rich kids beyond their competence,” he says, “while the verbal skills of the black underclass continue to decline.”

-- DevinMcDougall - 02 Oct 2011

Maybe food for thought, but some of it goes down a little putrid for me. Does Hirsch really expect us to believe in the declining verbal skills of the part of our society whose vernacular poetry is now the centerspine of our popular culture? He doesn't believe in rap, of course. It isn't language. What Hirsch doesn't know isn't knowledge.

"Just as" the hoarding of wealth deprives the many, so does the hoarding of knowledge? That's to deny the difference between zero and non-zero marginal cost. Teaching has non-zero marginal cost, but transmitting knowledge for those able to teach themselves does not. Hence all of what is done at MIT, where Hirsch knows the rich kids are, through MIT Open CourseWare benefits any learner in the world, which is where the poor are. With the addition of teachers to impart the curriculum, as when West Bengal adopts MIT Open CourseWare as the curriculum for the state's engineering colleges, what Hirsch would in his metaphor consider to be "redistribution" turns out to be just distribution after all.

But if the redistribution of knowledge capital is just the free distribution of knowledge, then what Hirsch thinks he wants is what the dotCommunist Manifesto and the free culture movement's critique of copyright demand.

My reference to food for thought was to the broader article, not specifically the Hirsch quotation embedded. That Hirsch's evaluation is wrong or incomplete, I think, does not alter the broader reality that educational opportunities in America are unequally distributed.

With respect to the broader article, I wasn't endorsing it wholesale; I was making a similar critique as the one you've made about the zero marginal cost of knowledge distribution: "But, note the implicit assumption of a zero-sum game, that investment of "intellectual capital" at top schools means underinvestment at less prestigious schools. In a zero marginal cost world, however, at least with respect to knowledge, that proposition is false: if we write once, we can read everywhere."

-- DevinMcDougall - 03 Oct 2011

Additionally: as it happens, there's another NYT article today, one which more precisely separates out zero and nonzero marginal costs as related to education, and recognizes the revolutionary potential of technology in knowledge distribution (Though it does not appear to recognize the role of copyright in holding back that potential or the gravity of the moral stakes involved in denying knowledge unnecessarily; the article ends with a rumination on the need of content providers to get paid):

Meanwhile, one of Stanford’s most inventive professors, Sebastian Thrun, is making an alternative claim on the future. Thrun, a German-born and largely self-taught expert in robotics, is famous for leading the team that built Google’s self-driving car. He is offering his “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course online and free of charge. His remote students will get the same lectures as students paying $50,000 a year, the same assignments, the same exams and, if they pass, a “statement of accomplishment” (though not Stanford credit). When The Times wrote about this last month, 58,000 students had signed up for the course. After the article, enrollment leapt to 130,000, from across the globe.

Thrun’s ultimate mission is a virtual university in which the best professors broadcast their lectures to tens of thousands of students. Testing, peer interaction and grading would happen online; a cadre of teaching assistants would provide some human supervision; and the price would be within reach of almost anyone. “Literally, we can probably get the same quality of education I teach in class for about 1 to 2 percent of the cost,” Thrun told me.

The traditional university, in his view, serves a fortunate few, inefficiently, with a business model built on exclusivity. “I’m not at all against the on-campus experience,” he said. “I love it. It’s great. It has a lot of things which cannot be replaced by anything online. But it’s also insanely uneconomical.”

Thrun acknowledges that there are still serious quality-control problems to be licked. How do you keep an invisible student from cheating? How do you even know who is sitting at that remote keyboard? Will the education really be as compelling — and will it last? Thrun believes there are technological answers to all of these questions, some of them being worked out already by other online frontiersmen.

“If we can solve this,” he said, “I think it will disrupt all of higher education.”

-- DevinMcDougall - 03 Oct 2011



Webs Webs

r4 - 03 Oct 2011 - 05:40:52 - DevinMcDougall
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