Information Technology

From the issue dated September 24, 2004


The Open-Source Bazaar Makes Scholarship Available


The atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq created a teachable moment. Many of us who wondered how Americans could have behaved so badly turned for answers to a Web site ( based on the Stanford prison experiment -- a well-known study by Philip G. Zimbardo of Stanford University that showed disturbing levels of violence among men in a simulated prison.

For about a month the Web site, maintained by Zimbardo and Scott L. Plous of Wesleyan University, was getting a quarter-million hits a day. The same media -- the Internet and digital cameras -- that documented the human-rights disaster at Abu Ghraib provided an opportunity to keep such disasters from happening again.

The creation of Web-based instructional materials -- often referred to as learning objects -- like those on the prison-experiment site represents a crucial step toward a world of widely available scholarly information. However, we must solve a number of vexing problems before we can reach that goal.

The adoption of proprietary course-management systems by most universities inhibits progress in that direction because learning materials that were once available on course Web pages are now hidden behind passwords and no longer show up in search-engine results. Textbook publishers have yet to come up with viable business models for licensing smaller units of content for professors who do not wish to adopt an entire textbook or online curriculum, while faculty members complain that commercial materials are poorly designed or inaccurate.

Even projects like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's well-intentioned OpenCourseWare initiative do more to document existing practices than to encourage a rethinking of teaching and doing scholarship online. And many of the most innovative projects are handicapped by a copyright system that makes sharing derivative works for educational use cumbersome, if not impossible.

Open-source methods for the development and management of digital-course materials are often seen as a workable alternative to commercial products. But those methods are still in their infancy. In part, that is because the educational value of high-quality learning objects has not yet been fully understood or documented.

It is also due to the fact that we are spending our information-technology dollars elsewhere. In the November/December 2003 issue of Educause Review, Edward L. Ayers and Charles M. Grisham argue that "American higher education has created a doughnut IT infrastructure: all periphery and no center." The staggering investment that our colleges and universities have made in technology, they suggest, will not begin to pay off until we also invest heavily in the teachers and scholars who use that technology. To fill in the hole, we need high-quality, digital educational content produced by scholars in partnership with experts in technology.

We can learn from the world of software development. Eric S. Raymond, a well-known advocate of open-source programs, describes two worlds of software development: the cathedral and the bazaar. In the cathedral world, software is made behind closed doors -- like programs from Microsoft and other giants. In the bazaar world, software is made in the open, collaboratively -- like Linux.

We in higher education should think about whether we produce knowledge in the world of the cathedral or that of the bazaar. New technologies can change our methods, and we should study the impact of open-source software on the practices of teaching and learning. Open source is not just a method of developing programs; it is also a cultural outlook. Scholars should find it a comfortable approach, given that the open and free exchange of ideas is a core value of academe.

We have seen a rapid shift from print information to digital material. Yet most digital products closely resemble their print counterparts -- the book, the article, the overhead slide -- and do not take full advantage of the digital medium. What might digital scholarship and teaching materials look like?

They might resemble Edward Ayers's documentary archive for the study and teaching of the Civil War ( They might look like the small, interactive-learning modules in different disciplines that my colleagues and I have created at Wesleyan University (, or the new publications from Columbia University Press ( that blur the lines between the scholarly and the instructional.

Many people are trying to create technical, organizational, and political answers to the complex questions involved in creating online academic content. But no one has yet figured out how to make it easy to create electronic learning materials that are pedagogically sound. Most IT centers have adopted a "field of dreams" approach: If we build a system to support the creation of content, then someone will produce that content.

What can we do to make its creation more likely? Actually, quite a bit.

With thousands of autonomous campuses, academe has little chance of coming up with a single right method of creating good educational materials online -- nor should we try to. Despite our common purpose, our institutions are too dissimilar. But where institutional networks do exist, it makes sense to collaborate, along the lines of open-source consortia.

Institutions in the liberal arts might consult the Academic Commons (, a Web site I am helping to develop, when it comes online in January. Focusing on the relationships among technology, pedagogy, and the outcomes of a liberal education, the site will collect stories and projects that document the evolving nature of teaching and research, and encourage collaboration that will lead to open-source teaching and research. Our goal is to understand the implications of new technology for core educational questions and harness its transformative possibilities.

Consider again the prison-experiment Web site, with 250,000 hits per day for 30 days -- or 7.5 million hits. In an age when a textbook often costs more than $100, when journal prices are skyrocketing, and when scholarly presses routinely produce only a hundred copies of a monograph, we need to know more about the open-source techniques that make it easier to create and share intellectual property.

Michael Roy is director of academic computing services and digital library projects at Wesleyan University.
Section: Information Technology
Volume 51, Issue 5, Page B25