Sunday, July 5, 2009

Free! The price of Educational Television: Part 1

I have not read Chris Anderson's new book, "Free: The Future of a Radical Price" (Hyperion; $26.99) but last night I read Malcolm Gladwell's review in The New Yorker, "Priced to Sell." Then this morning I read comments in Chris Brogan's blog: I Believe Mark Cuban is Right
which lead me naturally enough to Mark Cuban's blog: Free vs Freely Distributed and of course to Seth Godin's disagreement with Gladwell's review on his blog: Malcolm is wrong. I'm not going to weigh in on the future of newspapers or whether "Free" is the new price point but I do have some thoughts about distributing educational video, its value and who pays for it.

Several points in the "Free Debate" seem to be clear even if not everyone agrees on what they mean.

  • Consumers are increasingly expecting information for free.

  • The cost of distribution is so low that when you "round down" it is free.

  • Someone is still going to make money somewhere.

Some of the areas of contention are:

  • Who controls the distribution of information?

  • Who gets paid for what?

  • What will the marketplace do?

What does this have to do with educational content, especially with video content where I have more experience? Through my previous roles at the University of Washington's UWTV and the ResearchChannel I spent a lot of my time trying to get professors and schools to record their talks, lectures and presentations, their "intellectual property," and distribute it first on television then on the internet for free. Of course it was not free to produce and distribute the programs but the programs are free for anyone with access to the internet. For the most part the content providers were not paid. However, there are countervailing opinions within the educational community that will both help and hinder the distribution of educational content.

Briefly let's take a quick look back on some of the dominant attitudes of academia on distributing educational video in particular. In our culture colleges and universities, for over a thousand years, have been at the center of disseminating information and knowledge. Even though higher education thrives on a meritocracy access has traditionally been available only to the elite and widespread access has only been available in the United States since the end of World War II. For some the promise of television meant a way to educate the masses and to freely disseminate knowledge. Pioneers such as Johns Hopkins University began broadcasting "The Johns Hopkins Science Review" on WAAM as early as 1948. Many Public Television stations began as educational TV stations in the 1950s and 1960s. For example KCTC in Seattle first aired in 1955 from the campus of the University of Washington. Because of the strong believe that knowledge should be free many of these efforts, from children's educational programs to satellite distribution across Alaska, were supported by local, state and federal subsidies which have been steadily eroding since the 1980s.

While some promoted the free distribution of academic content over television others were vehemently guarding their "intellectual property." They often felt that at certain levels information could be shared amongst their peers but mass distribution, especially on television, was a waste of time and a bit unseemly. Others thought that knowledge needed to be distributed face to face, in a brick and mortar building, that giving people free access to knowledge would somehow decrease enrolment. Others felt that, for example, if they wrote a book they should be paid for it, if they gave a televised lecture they should be paid for it. The basic stance was that giving away information for free was counterproductive.

An article in Time Magazine written by Andrea Ford this past April, Logging On to the Ivy League, pointed out what my colleagues at the ResearchChannel and UWTV had been saying for over 10 years. That giving away the content, the exposure, was worth the costs. In the article Ford talked with MIT's Steve Carson, "who serves as president of the OpenCourseWare Consortium, says it's worth the expense, since the online content attracts prospective students, keeps alumni connected and encourages innovation. Schools have decided that these benefits outweigh the concerns about cost, intellectual property and devaluation of élite degrees. After all, the free material does not add up to a diploma, and viewers can't interact with the faculty."

One major thing has changed between the time Johns Hopkins' educational programs first aired in 1948 and MITs YouTube adventure. Traditional broadcast bandwidth, including the license, transmission towers and related infrastructure, was very expensive and distribution limited to a few hundred miles. When distribution subsidies dried up in the 1980s educational television all but disappeared. Now, as we have learned from Anderson et al, distribution via the internet is so cheap it might as well be free. Now that the walls to distribution have been torn down knowledge is free to roam the verdant fields of an eager public, yet rubble and barbed wire still mar the landscape impeding the free flow of knowledge.

In Caldwell's review he criticizes Anderson's example of Lewis Strauss, the former head of the Atomic Energy Commission, "who famously predicted in the mid-nineteen-fifties that "our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter."' Caldwell points out that even without the problems later faced by nuclear power, electricity would never be "too cheap to meter" because no matter how cheap it became to generate electricity there would always be costs associated with the infrastructure and delivery of electricity. Likewise, no matter how cheap it is to distribute content on YouTube.EDU, assuming that YouTube can maintain or survive their business model, it still costs thousands of dollars to produce and publish the simplest video lecture. Someone has to pay for that.

This is where the current debate in educational video lies and the subject of my next blog. Who should pay for the distribution of educational content and who should benefit? What pricing models make sense and what business models are sustainable?

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