Why do universities not publish student-generated content online for free?

by WardBlawg on October 14, 2010

Why don’t universities publish their student’s work online for free?

Each year across the world, each university demands that its students submit essays and dissertations electronically. But very little of that work is published online for the world to read. If it was so published, the knowledge contained within would be shared with billions of people around the planet. It follows that students would gain greater incentive to make their work of better quality. So, why not publish worldwide? Below are outlined the current trends towards emphasis on virtual learning and information dissemination through social media, followed by suggested reasons for universities not publishing students’ work more for free, concluding with a recommended course of action for all universities throughout the world to consider.

What is the current position?

First, it might be best to look at what is already happening with virtual learning. Take the Open University which received around Eur10,000,000 to implement a Moodle-based virtual learning environment. The website outlines the project:

In 2005 The Open University (OU) UK, one of Europe’s largest distance learning universities, established that it was time to deploy a new Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), for both The Open University itself as well as for their OpenLearn project aimed at providing free open educational resources (OER) to the general public.Today the Moodle VLE has been successfully implemented at the OU and the OU has further published a significant amount of their learning material under a Creative Commons license as courses on the Moodle VLE based OpenLearn website, which are freely available to anyone interested.

Five years fast-forwarded, in 2010, the best virtual learning environment is the Internet itself, provided you know where to look. Social media is making that search for knowledge much easier. See, for instance, this briefing note from Christine Redecker, Kirsti Ala-Mutka and Yves Punie earlier this year entitled Learning 2.0 – The Impact of Social Media on Learning in Europe:

Over the last few years, the Internet has had a profound effect on the private and professional lives of European citizens, offering them an increasing number and range of opportunities for accessing information, gaining and exchanging knowledge and realising personal learning goals…

The usefulness of the Internet for learning purposes is…reflected in Eurostat data. In 2009, an average of 31% of the EU27 population (aged 16 to 74) already use the Internet for seeking information with the purpose of learning, up 8% from 2007.

The authors continue to discuss the rise of social media and its application on such virtual learning:

Studies conducted by the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies (IPTS) suggest that the high take up of social media applications1 outside of formal educational settings provides new opportunities for innovating and modernising Education and Training institutions and for preparing learners for the 21st century…
The authors argue that IPTS research demonstrates that social media can contribute to enhancing learning and teaching opportunities in Europe. They call this “Learning 2.0”, which is already taking shape in numerous forms throughout Europe and indeed the world which illustrate that social media can be, and are being, used by Education and Training institutions to:

-facilitate access by current and prospective students to information, making institutional processes more transparent and facilitating the distribution of educational material;
-integrate learning into a wider community, reaching out to virtually meet people from other age-groups and socio-cultural backgrounds, linking to experts, researchers or practitioners in a certain field of study and thus opening up alternative channels for
gaining knowledge and enhancing skills;
-support the exchange of knowledge and material and facilitate community building and collaboration among learners and teachers;
-increase academic achievement with the help of motivating, personalised and engaging learning tools and environments;
-implement pedagogical strategies intended to support, facilitate, enhance and improve learning processes.

IPTS research findings (Redecker et al., 2009) indicate that Learning 2.0 gives rise to
technological innovation in Education and Training by:

-increasing the accessibility and availability of learning content;
-providing new formats for knowledge dissemination, acquisition and management;
-allowing for the production of dynamic learning resources and environments of high quality and interoperability;
-embedding learning in more engaging and activating multimedia environments;
-supporting individualised learning processes by allowing learner preferences to be
accounted for; and
-equipping learners and teachers with versatile tools for knowledge exchange and
collaboration, which overcome the limitations of face-to-face instruction.

Concluding powerfully, the authors state that:

European Education and Training systems should embrace social media and the innovative learning opportunities and practices enabled by emerging new technologies to keep up with change and prepare their learners for rest of the 21st century.

Why not improve?

So with this knowledge, why aren’t universities publishing more students’ work online for free?

Is it because of fear of plagiarism? If so, equally, plagiarism-checking software is able to perform word and phrase searches to counter verbatim copying and pasting of that material.

Is it because of lack of hosting space? If so, why does WardblawG, a mere pond life, have access to post unlimited material on the Internet through a subscription to Dreamhost?

Is it because some work might be of poorer quality? Perhaps, but it would be easy enough to build in eligibility criteria, such that work which is graded at a higher level could be made eligible for publication.

Is it because there exist other forms of publication in which students seek to become published? Again, perhaps. Twenty years ago hard copy publications, like magazines, books, newsletters and journals, were still entirely relevant for publication with businesses setting aside more cash to spend on advertising within such publications. Arguably there is even more cash made available for such purpose, yet a greater proportion is spent on e-marketing i.e. advertising on publications on the web.

Is it because of fear of other universities and bodies stealing or “sharing” that knowledge and information? It may well be. But think about what is happening with the newspaper industry with the rapid spread of web 2.0. Their business models remain relatively unchanged in terms of writers publishing articles and gaining revenue through advertisers. BUT, and this is crucial, because articles are published onto the web freely, the revenue comes from advertisers online via pay per click (PPC) or cost per thousand impressions (CPM ). Among a small group of rebels, The Times has tried to replicate the old business model by charging a small subscription fee for users to view its content. Whether that will prove to be successful is debatable, but this blawg thinks not. It is thought that the most pragmatic method is to publish content freely while utilising adverts to generate revenue with, perhaps, a free subscription process to capture personal details such as email address and name.

Is it because of copyright? It is true, at least under Scots law, that universities generally own the copyright in lecture notes. But, lecture notes aside, provided that the IP policy of the University does not impose restrictions, the copyright in personal notes, essays and dissertations belongs to the student. Consider, for instance, the University of Glasgow’s IP policy and, in particular, the clause regarding student IP:

5.5 Student IP
5.5.1 In general students who are not employed by the University own any IP they create
in addition to being the inventor, except where it arises: in the course of a sponsored studentship under which the sponsoring
External Body has a claim on arising IP; in the course of or pursuant to a sponsored research or other agreement for
an External Body; or outside the scope of their University course work with more than incidental
use of University Resources.

The student is, therefore, generally free to publish his or her material produced through his or her studies to the world, for instance, on a blog.

What are the options for improvement and innovation?

Universities have four options with generated content: First, they can store the content in their vaults and ignore it. That’s not viable in the 21st century, the main reason for which is that students, like me, will keep their own copy; Second, they can publish the content on their own websites and make it available just to its own students; Third, they can publish the content on their own websites and make it available for a subscription fee; or, Fourth, they can publish the content on their own websites and make it available for free while utilising adverts, whether paid-for, PPC or CPM, to generate revenue.

Conclusions and recommendations

It is submitted that there is no reasonably justifiable reason for such work not being posted online for free within universities’ websites, whether or not in blog format, should the student authorise it and provided the right controls are put in place.

It is, therefore, submitted that the fourth option is to be favoured: universities should publish as much content as possible on their own websites and make it available for free with author permission, or alternatively, encourage students to post under their own blogs, while utilising adverts, whether paid-for, PPC or CPM, to generate revenue. That is not to say that this is not happening; it is. But the potential for leveraging a much greater expansion of information dissemination is so enormous that it should and, perhaps, cannot be ignored.

Ivory Tower

Ivory Tower

For the avoidance of doubt, the above views represent the personal views of the author, Gavin Ward. See for further disclaimer information.



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