Houston, we need to talk about content

One of the features of Australian life that surprises visiting American students is that we’re watching the same movies and TV shows they just left back home, only with the neat variation that ours are seasons out of date. So they arrive at the airport having been told to expect novelties of all sorts (usually, some variation on kangaroos in the suburbs, laid-back anti-authoritarianism, a funny accent, and sharks), to find that they’ve stepped back in time to their own recent TV-watching past.

This is because Australia is a net importer of pre-loved media content. It’s cheaper for Australian networks to buy American content which has already covered its production costs back home, and it’s more profitable for Australian cinemas to show the American movies that audiences will pay to watch. And it’s not as though we’ve left this entirely to chance: we also have a powerful Free Trade Agreement with the United States to ensure that our audio visual and entertainment market is as open as possible, with only limited exceptions for some platforms or products.

Although I’m sympathetic to the idea that we should protect the livelihoods of local content producers, I’m not sure we can do this on the basis of an out of date argument that Australians need Australian content.

There are three things wrong with this kind of cultural protectionism. First, in the age of media piracy and digital streaming, that particular horse has bolted way over the horizon. Second, as Henry Jenkins explains so well, there are many benefits to the kinds of pop cosmopolitanism that enables young people in one country to borrow and play with other people’s culture. And third, Australians are notorious avoiders of local content, but this doesn’t make them less confident of their place as Australian world citizens.  We can tell the difference between Miami on the television and Melbourne out of the window.

But do the arguments for an open and cosmopolitan media mix extend to higher education? Or is Australian education something that needs to be developed in Australia, by Australians?

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s recent report on Open Educational Resources reveals that the US government is spending a quiet $2 billion US of economic recovery funding in enabling community colleges to produce new educational content resources that must then be shared.

On the face of it, there’s much to like about the OER movement, including its determination to reduce the level of waste in higher education. This waste has two causes: redundancy and delivery mode. The Western system of disciplinary divisions means that higher education institutions offer the same courses the world over, and each of them devotes their own resources to creating content that might seem unique but is usually pretty much the same as the content down the road. And most of this is still developed in artisanal conditions, delivered in a one-off you-had-to-be-there live format, sometimes patchily recorded, and then stuffed in a drawer or in the bin, only to have to be redesigned next time.

If we could do this more efficiently and collaboratively, maybe we’d all have time to do more of the other things that the expansion of higher education will soon be asking us to do, including memorise the names of up to 150 students.

Undoubtedly, some of the rhetoric will alarm those who are already feeling tetchy about the pressure to create more online courses, such as the always interesting More or Less Bunk, whose crusade against online charlatanism has caught my eye. And while I can’t quite salute the idea that we charlatans have no conscience, this kind of chirruping technopositivism doesn’t work for me either:

The latest and most sophisticated open educational resources have tests embedded within them because assessment is a fundamental element of learning. Feedback-based, assessment-driven “cognitive tutors” developed by learning scientists at Carnegie Mellon are woven into science, engineering, and philosophy courses produced by the university’s Open Learning Initiative.

Oh, really.

But here’s the part of this initiative that should give Australians something to think about:

The concept is simple: Community colleges that compete for federal money to serve students online will be obliged to make those materials—videos, text, assessments, curricula, diagnostic tools, and more—available to everyone in the world, free, under a Creative Commons license.

Kevin Carey describes the OER funding package as something that has the capacity to create “an entire ecosystem for teaching and crediting human knowledge and skill, one that exists entirely outside the traditional colleges and universities”. This is an expansive vision for the transformation of higher education, and besides it’s always hard to knock back free stuff.

Except that very little that’s labelled “free” is really also without cost. And in this case Australians might want to think very carefully about the lessons of our own TV watching history.

2 thoughts on “Houston, we need to talk about content

  1. What surprised me about Australian life during the month I spent at the University of Sydney a couple of years ago was how good the BBC is. BBCAmerica is like wall to wall Gordon Ramsey and Dr. Who (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but when I was there I was totally hooked on Time Team and whatever Niall Ferguson was doing.

    My wife was totally hooked on Top Chef Australia, so if you happen to remember who won that in 2009, I’m sure she’d like to know.

    Like

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