Beyond Blackboard

The objection to Blackboard’s actions has continued to grow around the net. Blackspace and No Education Patents are two wikis collecting information in opposition to Blackboard and other educational patents. There is also a Wikipedia site on the History of Virtual Learning Environments. Michael Feldstein provides more information on his blog.

The situation reminds me of some points I was making about Richard Lanham’s emphasis on the marketplace in Economics of Attention. There he repeatedly marks his preference for the market and "bottom-up" development over state-controlled top-down management. As I remarked then, the problem with assessment is that business entities seek to dominate the market the same way states do in socialist states. So how does one read this situation? Clearly laws, including intellectual property from copyright and trademark to patent, are state mechanisms for regulating the marketplace, and corporations make use of these laws to dominate the marketplace. Is this an example of state control of the market preventing the emergent possibilities of the market or of the way in which entities within the market seek to use market conditions to dominate?

I’m sure there are instances where patents and copyright can be properly applied to reward individuals and corporations for their work and investment. However, this notion of a future where only the Blackboard corporation will be permitted to create online learning systems would, to the contrary, invalidate the hard work and investment of many such people. I would not want to suggest that the folks at Blackboard haven’t worked hard or innovated, even though I don’t care for their product personally. However, this is precisely what they are suggesting by impugning the work of academics, programmers, instructional designers and others who have built all these other systems by suggesting their work is simply derivative.

The Blackboard situation, however, is only one instance of a larger challenge we face as educators as we decide how to treat our own intellectual labor. From syllabi and assignments teachers share and/or sell online to videos, learning objects, coursecasts and such, everyday faculty and their institutions will need to decide who owns what and how they will share such information and media. If a colleague at my own college or another shares her course materials online, would it be appropriate for me to simply teach her course? I can’t imagine doing that; I can’t imagine not wanting at least to put my own spin on a course. However, certainly if I were teaching a new course, I would search around for syllabi to see what others do, what books they use, assignments they include, and so on. This is an extension of a regular internal department practice where one might look at old syllabi to see what one’s predecessors have done.

For me, Blackboard is a stern warning about the chllling effect that corporate-academic partnerships represent.  We need to think carefully about how we want to proceed with our own intellectual property practices and the way we teach such issues to our students.

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