Technology and Intellectual Property: Who's in Control?

By Schrecker, Ellen | Academe, May/June 1998 | Go to article overview

Technology and Intellectual Property: Who's in Control?


Schrecker, Ellen, Academe


FOR ME, PERHAPS NOTHing better illustrates the contradictions inherent in the academic use of the new technology designed for distance learning than the first time I saw it in action. It was at a local AAUP chapter meeting where we decided to use the university's teleconferencing equipment to bring our colleagues at the school's other campus into our discussion. Once we got the system under control, we realized that it presented some serious academic freedom issues insofar as it might have allowed unwanted surveillance. So we shut down the connection. Relations between the faculty and the administration were sometimes strained, and we did not want to discuss potentially sensitive matters in such a venue.

While my colleagues and I may be unduly paranoid, the growing use of technology in the educational process raises problems that academics can no longer ignore. Both the AAUP's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure and its Committee R on Government Relations have addressed these problems. AAUP committee reports on distance learning and intellectual property rights, as well as related articles by Karen Cardenas, Robert Gorman, Marjorie Heins, and M. M. Scott, form the core of this issue of Academe.

It has become all too common to treat technological change as an irresistible force of nature over which mere mortals, and certainly mere college professors, have little control. But technology is not a tornado. It is a tool, a human invention brought onto the campus, as elsewhere, by people who want to improve their operations and cut costs. However, because the academy's embrace of technology is occurring at a time of financial stringency, it not only amplifies preexisting problems, but does so in ways that are not always compatible with scholarly inquiry or academic freedom.

Neither the members of AAUP committees nor Academe s authors are Luddites. Karen Cardenas enthuses about computer-aided instruction and the way in which distance learning enables the language departments at several South Dakota institutions to offer upper-level courses that no single school could mount. At the same time, she recognizes, as does Committee R, the dark side of the new technologies: their recurring breakdowns and their unprecedented demands on a professor's time and attention.

Electronic classrooms are not cheap. Though often touted as saving money by lessening the need for teachers and classrooms, they require such a heavy investment in rapidly obsolescing hardware, software, and support staff that, as Committee R points out, the "cost-cutting aspects of distance learning are, in most cases, cost shifting. …

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