Cor baby – that’s really free?

These are my views and not those of my employer, or of projects and programmes I am responsible for. This post is available under a creative commons CC-BY license.

There’s a new market price for learning resources. Free. So say (in the UK) the Guardian, the TES and now mobile network operator 02.

That’s free as in beer, which is substantially better than £30 for a textbook. Isn’t it? 

For the uninterested end user (the same group who couldn’t care less that Wikipedia is mostly CC-BY-SA), yes.

Unless they happen to feel that their personal information, contact details, browsing history and stated preference actually do have a market value beyond access to materials that are largely taxpayer funded anyway.

Unless they want to use the resources in unexpected contexts, excerpt from them confidently and stay “legal” whilst doing so.

Unless they have nagging suspicions that materials may be filtered, censored or altered by commercial entities who essentially see them as marketing tools.

Unless they want to share materials they have found with colleagues and friends outside of the provisions of the provided service.

Unless they don’t want to advertise the likes of O2 in their classroom, feeling perhaps that learning and the support of learning is not a branch of marketing or PR.

Unless they happen to live or work outside of the UK, or whatever jurisdiction the material they want to use is available in.

Unless they happen to think that maybe, the knowledge build up by centuries of human endeavour belongs to everyone and does not need to be commodified and marketised for consumption.

This is the first great victory for free education. We’ve won – the open education, open everything, filthy-hippy team eduBeard have vanquished all before us. Yeah! We’ve broken publishing. The new model of knowledge sharing is here. 

Now, do we need to get on and break marketing? Maybe take a few pot-shots at capital and the creation of value on the way?

Some would say that we don’t. If there is no “value” in openness other than availability, we’ve completed our job and got the achievement badge. You can now get to learning materials at no cost to the end user. Sure, you may need to sign in, sign over your most valuable commodity (your information), abide by arbitrary rules, and surrender any thoughts of ownership, personal control or even long-term availability of resources. But that might be OK. That might be enough.

For those on the other side: You’re going to be unpopular. The “no cost” argument is a strong one, as is the “reputational benefit to the provider”. One has been lost entirely, the other needs some serious analysis. And some unattractive, almost counter-intuitive politics need to be communicated, jargon- and assumption- free, in an attractive way. Oh, and some of the best funded and most able marketing professionals will be ranged against you, as you attack the very basis of their value assumptions. It’s going to be trouble.

My wife (a huge inspiration both professionally and personally) shared the following quote from Hunter S Thompson with me recently:

“So we shall let the reader answer this question for himself: who is the happier man, he who has braved the storm of life and lived or he who has stayed securely on shore and merely existed?”

If we can’t do it for the truth, and we can’t do it for our rights, if we can’t do it for the future, we should do it because it is going to be the loudest, lairiest, mind-blowing headfuck of a ride in the end of civilisation.

Because if this is what winning feels like, then I’ve been playing the wrong game.

2 thoughts on “Cor baby – that’s really free?

  1. Aye, the old “free as in beer” thing. I’ve no problem with free beer, I hasten to add. But when it comes to knowledge, “no cash cost” isn’t enough for me.

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