There's open and then there's "open" 
I was an invited speaker last week at DIY Publishing and the University, an event held by the NorthEast Regional Computing Program. I was there because of forall x; the organizers had found me through the Creative Commons database.

Most of the speakers talked about electronic resources, like institutional archives, student videos, or MOOCs. I was the odd man out, because forall x is a traditional textbook. Although it is distributed electronically, it is designed to be used as a physical workbook. Today I ran across an article in Salon which supports my old-school approach; it argues that people just don't comprehend material read on screen or on a tablet as well as material read on paper. Yet the difference is not so clear or strong that we should imagine it is inevitable. Future students may be better at learning from electronic documents, and future technology might present them in better ways. I will still be teaching a decade or two from now, and my preference for paper may be something I'll need to get over.*

One nice result of the NERCOMP event is that I now have a better understanding of MOOCs. A MOOC (the acronym stands for Massive Open Online Course) allows people from all over the world to register for and take a course. They might watch videos of lectures, participate in a discussion forum with other students, take tests on their computer, and so on. Because the courses are free, they are often mentioned in the same context as open-access textbooks.

The thing I learned is that "open" in MOOC just means open enrollment. Anyone anywhere is free to take the course. The course materials might be released under a Creative Commons license, but they might just be under traditional copyright. MIT labels its MOOC material "some rights reserved" and, although that is a standard label on CC-licensed material, MIT does not specify an specific permissions. Because they don't say, "some" is legally equivalent to "all". The difference is just a flourish, because "all rights reserved" would not sound as welcoming.

So I was also the odd man out because I was one of the few presenters specifically concerned with open access issues.**


* Even if there are cyborg students in the future, though, there are still concerns of equity. Even if it gets to the point where digital natives with advanced e-readers think better with electronic documents than with paper documents, economic disparities will mean that other students don't. Of course, the future of the university as an enterprise is also up for grabs in the next decade or two.
** Not the only one. Thomas Dodson, a librarian from Harvard, talked about their open access repository of faculty research.

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