I am sure you'll want access to free education courses on WikiEducator, I promise. But hear me out please by reading below!

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Dear colleagues

Put yourself in these hypothetical shoes of mine for a moment as I play devil's advocate. If our goal at WE (WikiEducator) was to make as much money as possible by doing as little work as possible then we would have no need for teachers or creative administrative talent like myself except for generating and recycling more educational marketing buzzwords.

Since you and I have accumulated much technical knowledge over decades our cadre of skilled colleagues are now at our very fingertips collaborating online in WiZiQ, Blogging and Skyping daily such that face to face meetings in person are no longer the norm for us.

Similarly Wikis and Educational Wikis specifically are our focus here and clearly we each have the aptitude and the ability - but some of us still cannot get our heads around why one should ever use a Twitter feed!

Somehow it doesn't sound too promising a tool in the classroom setting with 30 mobile cellphones all being used at once with the pupils texting among one another, but again put yourself in my hypothetical shoes for a moment.

I am sure all pupils want access to free education courses, but I promise we may need to think again.

Now let us all imagine an education business that can achieve our lofty goals.

The natural place to start this business is on the internet - where one can harness the labour of millions of people and pay them zero sums per day for all for their hard work. Under the smokescreen of "collective intelligence" or harnessing "the wisdom of the crowdsourcing model of opensource courseware development", we can keep our supply costs at zero. And if we can keep reminding these rubes that "power lies at the edge of the network" or "in the Long Tail", they'll produce lots of courseware stuff for us for nothing, without ever complaining.

That's the supply side sorted out. However, we need to attract an audience.

We know that the traditional vices - gambling and porn - will drive substantial traffic to our online service. But gambling has regulatory issues - and porn takes us away from the mainstream. That leaves education - the stuff of life, and proven crowd-puller. So let's make education the main feature of our WikiEducator service. Done!

There's a couple of problems however.

One is that simply throwing up millions of crowdsourced user-generated courses isn't going to draw much of an audience, as the (undoubted) gems are going to remain too hard to find. Copyrighted material is what people see out there and still want, and while economic activity persists around higher education, there are thousands of teachers slightly better than our algorithms suggest dedicated to finding courses. We can give our course finding technology a fancy name, but it's still rubbish, and no match for a human eye or educational talent scout.

The second problem is that owners of curricula are frustratingly reluctant to surrender their assets for a smile, a promise and two magic beans - which is about all we have to offer. What education service companies like ours need is somebody in the education book publishing business stupid enough to hand over their master rights assets for next to nothing. Good luck with that one! Thirdly, and this follows on from the second point, curriculum asset-owners have civil law on their side. So unless we negotiate individually with many different licensing entities, the threat of litigation or seizure hangs like a sword of Damocles over us. What we need is a Get Out of Jail Free card - something that allows us to pursue our goal of creating as much money as possible, while adding as little value to the human condition as we can muster. But now I think I've heard the cure for all these problems. I would like to propose it to the world - and be assured that it fits THE UNSCRUPULOUS unethical needs perfectly but definitely not our own.

It's an AEC or "Access to Education Charge", and it's THEIR idea of a Holy Grail.

Under an AEC Copyleft policy the rights holders couldn't refuse us - and everyone is opted in at once. So this lifts the mortal threat of being sued for using someone else's curricula assets without their permission, and doesn't oblige us to do anything innovative. The clincher: the cost of this, will be so low we can consider it as a one-off shake down.


So an AEC or 'Access to Education Charge' is great for talentless non-entreprenuers - but why is it also bad for anyone with a real economic interest in better access to education? Well, this scenario should explain it.

As I see it, an AEC will simply lift the threat of litigation from education services companies like ours that offer courseware file sharing, and creates a new pot of money that goes to creators. (How about we start by offering everyone a five dollar US bill for every hour of courseware creation?). What should happen is that enterpreneurs and innovators like us will then create value added services that people will voluntarily pay for, over and above the AEC. For example, people will pay for services that offer PDF file format versions of curricula or video podcasts of actual lessons from the curricula in HDTV (uploaded to Joost perhaps) in a flash format available online for all of us to share.

However, there's no need for us to spend a penny on such a service. Because under the AEC, every Oink is now legal, and they'll be offering such versions for us. So there's no reason for anyone to invest in creating premium services, because people are already getting freemium services for free. And because people are getting education for free they won't, out of the goodness of their hearts, suddenly start paying for one. Meanwhile, we're home and dry. Remember the question posed at the start of this piece - how can a completely talentless but cynical entrepreneur flourish? The answer is - they need an AEC. I suspect, many here in WikiEducator haven't met as many so called "ethical" internet entrepreneurs as I have.

Incentives and blankets

An explanation of the difference between a pay-for, voluntary, opt-in P2P service and a free for all low-cost blanket regime, such as my AEC idea is needed of course but that is way beyond this initial post on WE. The civilised home of the future will clearly have an education service, one that's managed by teaching professionals and fully aware that the two point four children plus one or two adult parents make up to five people with five very different tastes all living under the same roof. Nobody gives you that service today but that is definitely coming soon from us all if we plan it carefully. "I can't imagine people opting-out if the WikiEducator service I envisage is good."

It's about getting the incentives aligned. If you think MIT courseware is rubbish, you'll be able to take your money to Stanford University or elsewhere such as the open universities springing up around the world. Once you're voluntarily paying something, anything in fact, you have the right to switch. And because real money is changing hands, that means capital will flow to both content providers, teachers, professors, curricula develoopers and other online courseware competitors. There are still huge problems to be solved in marketing, educator course analysis, time billing management, but so long as students are happy, paying customers, money would go a long way to solving them.

A lot more is needed, of course. The entire supply side of the EDUCATION business needs reform because the suits don't understand scruffy students as customers. An Ivory tower dweller should think of him/herself as a factory worker supplying wholesalers - selling their goods to a wholesale market at the educational factory level or the school gate.

"A good enabler sets a price everyone can afford, then stands back and lets everyone else get on with the selling."

None of this would happen with an AEC sadly: "You will need more than just some kind of waiver that says the book publishers won't come after you for a single plagiarised sentence in a textbook."

Comfort blanket

Blanket licenses are a brilliantly seductive answer to courseware licensing, especially if you're in the UK as I am, where many here are naturally inclined to get the state involved and solve everything for you. The seduction is its simplicity - especially if you have an engineering mindset, where simple is elegant is best. I've been seduced by this myself. But there are real disadvantages as there are to any solution - and these become apparent after a moment's thought. The drawbacks, as I've illustrated, could be fatal for economic activity around education's grim future. It's dogmatic to wish these away.

That isn't to say that I would win a lot of support for my diagnosis of the education business. It's that my prognosis has zero support today. I am supposedly blind, or am I merely unwilling to see how the AEC idea creates a huge disincentive for anyone to get involved in the teaching business around making available "insanely great" educational courseware free online. All this talk of incentives "reminds me of the Banking crisis in the City" and we all now conclude that you and I can't ever trust global markets again.

This is a bit juvenile in a recession but I AM rightfully skeptical of economists' fads, and probably we are right to be wary of all Game Theory-based analysis too (the last big fad in economics before the current one, called Behavioural Economics). But I'm sure we understand disincentives - and these show my dilemma today. The teachers have embraced the new web 2.0 technologies, and want to license.

There's a problem, however:

"A lot of the Web 2.0 business models we've seen aren't business models at all. They haven't made any money."

That's our hypothetical business model rumbled then. If I cut the no-hope for survival internet companies like Yahoo some slack: "Our CREATIVE TEACHERS would just go... 'I think I might as well work for an ivory tower educational establishment that might at least make us all some money'."

With the AEC though, the conventional bricks and mortar EDUCATION business throws away the last bargaining chip that it has left, setting its exit price as low as it can. The only incentive it creates is for the hypothetical unethical entrepreneur I introduced at the start: talentless, cynical and exploitative. For him or her, happy days are here again!

Now let's imagine an ethical educational business in WE that can achieve ALL our goals.

Comments please!

David Bowman AKA M1chaelangelo

M1chaelangelo (talk)20:14, 28 November 2008