Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Future of Digital Content

After reading Scott's post, I feel inspired to spit out some bullet points of my own.

Here, in condensed form, is what we need:

  1. XO-style hardware in every kids hand. I'm still down with the Trojan Horse strategy. It is fine if most people think of it as an ebook/filmstrip/probeware/calculator/typewriter, as long as the platform is open and can be expanded to do cooler things. It is essential that the cost be entirely offset by the mundane uses, though.
  2. Technical infrastructure for free content. Licensing is pretty well understood now; distributed revision control exists for programming but hasn't quite been adopted by this community yet; robust and extensible metadata strategies exist but basically we lack the expertise to implement them, so we'll have to muddle through.
  3. High-quality free curriculum, a la Tinker. On occasion this may be funded by industry, see freereading.net, but basically, eventually government and philanthropy just has to realize that in the digital age they only need to pay for content once. Instead of buying copies of content year after year for every kid, they can just pay once to have it written and then distribute and re-use it as much as they want, sharing and spreading the costs among increasingly larger pools. It is about cutting out the middle-man.
  4. Protection from legal liability. There needs to be actual legislation clearly delineating and limiting the potential liabilities of school employees for disciplinary issues arising around the use of technology. Unfortunately, this seems like the least likely piece of the four.

Is there any reason this should be expensive? No. Would it dismantle most of the textbook industry (*cough* Pearson *cough*)? Yes. Would it seriously disrupt the educational technology market and put a serious dent in a number of US-based corporations? Yes. Are many other countries already taking these steps? Yes.


jasonpriem said...

I totally agree; this is where much of the revolutionary potential of e-learning lies. Of course, you point out the problem, as well: “About fifty percent of the human race is middle men and they don’t take kindly to being eliminated,” (In Capt. Malcolm Reynolds' words).

The other problem, though, is the regional tradition in US education. Unlike, say, France's system where on a given day pretty much every nth-grade student in the country is learning the same thing, US districts like their autonomy. Centralization in a strongly federalized system is always going to be met with some resistance; indeed I think that there are some good arguments to be made for preserving some of this regional control.

How the system as a whole negotiates the tensions between autonomy and powerful economies of scale will be interesting.

Tom Hoffman said...

I'm not really advocating a strongly federalized system. The reason distributed version control and good metadata are important is to allow management of alternate versions and components.

If you did have, say, an NSF science curriculum, it wouldn't be mandated, but essentially instead of buying a textbook, for the same price you'd get their free resources, plus an XO and probes, for more or less the same price.

Whatever else you do with the XO is gravy.

Doot-de-doo said...

Hello, Tom,

As you point out, this isn't difficult -- a simple distributed publishing platform can be built using GPL'ed tools. I described how to do this a few months ago here: http://funnymonkey.com/oers-publishing-easy-part

It's worth noting that all this works NOW. It's not vaporware. It's real.