Are you afraid of social loafers and free riders? I was having a discussion the other day about creating a shared, online directory of technology training videos. The issue of exploitation came up. The concern was that certain individuals who create a lot of videos would feel exploited by those who were using them without contributing anything themselves. It struck me that this is the same concern raised by faculty when discussing open courseware (OCW) initiatives. They ask, “Why should I contribute my intellectual property freely so that another instructor can just use it without expending any effort?”

I think this is actually a pretty complex psychological response and it wouldn’t hurt to try pulling it apart. It also needs to be interpreted within a larger social and political context, one that is in the midst of dramatic change. What seems irrational today might not seem so crazy five years from now.

What beliefs underlie this faculty concern today? I think there are at least three:

  • Welcome to the Academy. Many faculty identify very strongly with the group, the “Academy.” They see all faculty, especially tenured and tenure-track, as members of this group. There are grueling initiation rituals, well-established norms, and tacit performance expectations, particularly for junior members. The idea that members of the Academy could simply use another member’s syllabus, course materials, and activities versus producing their own is anathema, even if the final product is virtually identical to existing work. Thus, faculty concern over OCW may be largely due to the belief that other members of the Academy may loaf and not pull as hard on the rope. Junior members may be reluctant to use OCW resources for fear of being pegged as a loafer by the very members of the Academy who will grant them tenure and promotion. Of course, faculty who believe that their Academy membership is based on something other than teaching will probably be less concerned about sharing and using OCW resources.
  • Mine, Mine, All Mine. Some faculty believe strongly that their course-related materials and activities are their inventions. For many, the validity of this claim is obscured by the inexcusable morass of half-baked, poorly communicated campus IP policies. In the absence of clear, fair, and reassuring policies, faculty, particularly those who see teaching as their primary contribution to the Academy, cling tightly to their work for fear of being lured by OCW into a decision that might lead to their own obsolescence. Interestingly, the other edge of this sword is the strong belief that the Academy expects course-related materials and activities to be the unique and creative contributions of individual faculty. Thus, some fear that participating in OCW might reveal their “deep dark secret,” one likely shared by everyone who has ever taught a college course, that much of what they do when they teach is neither unique nor their own invention.
  • Pay Me. All faculty members that I know believe that they should be compensated fairly for their time and effort. Some of their concerns about OCW relate to the fact that sharing instructional content with the world may require additional time and effort on their part. They may need to rework their material, obtain copyright clearances, and learn how to use an OCW content management system. The MIT OCW initiative had significant external and internal support. Faculty could literally put their materials in a box and send them to someone else who would do all of the work for them. The concern among some faculty contemplating OCW is that those who will benefit from it and who have the means to support it will free ride. A more extreme form of the “pay me” belief is the notion that certain course materials have significant commercial value. This is probably not a major obstacle for OCW in that faculty pursuing commercial success would not offer this content to the world for free.

Are these beliefs irrational? I think one is and the other two aren’t. I think two will be gone within the next five years, but one will change shape and become stronger as the direct result of faculty use of information technology. More later.