Sell atoms, hire bits

February 19, 1999

Europe is close to adopting technology that lets academics rent out their knowledge to the world. Mike Holderness reports

The framework for a globally distributed virtual university is much nearer completion than you might think. What it needs now, according to object-computing guru Brad Cox, is a market mechanism. Leading the race to bring e-commerce to teaching and learning on both sides of the Atlantic is the Instructional Management Systems project, to which Cox is a senior consultant. Now Europe is planning to develop an electronic market for research, using the same technology. The THES understands that IMS is about to be made the standard for significant chunks of the European Union's .15 billion (Pounds 11 billion) Fifth Framework research programme.

Cox has always sought better ways of developing and distributing software. In the 1980s he anticipated the current interest in mix-and-match software components with a proposal for "software ICs" analogous to the hardware integrated circuits from which computers are built. He developed Objective-C, an object oriented programming language which lost out to the less elegant and robust C++. In 1996 he published Superdistribution: Objects as Property on the Electronic Frontier. He summarises its argument:

"If you think of the difference between bits and atoms, it is more useful to buy and own things made of atoms; for technical reasons it is easier to charge for use, not for acquisition, of bits."

The development of software "objects" will therefore, Cox concludes, take off only when there is a market. Objects - which might be course notes, plug-in statistical analysis tools or virtual-reality lectures - will send secure messages "home" reporting that they have been used, and raising a small charge. This concept was named "superdistribution" in 1983 by Ryoichi Mori, a professor at Tsukuba University and now at the Japan Electronics Industry Development Association.

It meets resistance from traditional publishers: they misunderstand it, Cox says, "as pay-per-keystroke or pay-per-minute". In fact, it could accommodate anything from a lifetime licence through a licence to use an object for a term down to -if you insist - per-keystroke payment. "The suits should be right at home with this," says Cox - "if they understood it."

At the end of 1998 Cox announced that he had "had it with charity work for the learning disabled, by which I mean faculty and administration, not students". He resigned from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia to concentrate on promoting superdistribution, including consulting for the Instructional Management Systems project. IMS is a part of the EduCause consortium, through which the major US software and publishing players are developing standards for interoperable educational tools (THES, September 18, 1998).

Around the edges of the New Orleans IMS meeting early this month, there was lively discussion of the issues which Cox's model of electronic commerce raises for education. Paul Lefrere, who works on the UK IMS project at the Open University, reports that the e-commerce aspect is in its early stages:

"The key is ensuring that you have sufficient learning objects out there for it to be worth having a digital economy."

Lefrere is struck by the interest shown by top-graded research universities. This, however, feeds his feeling that IMS does not at present "take enough account of the human dimension. There is a lot of uncertainty," he reports, "among faculty and adjunct staff (part-time lecturers). Capturing and trading prominent people's courses and course notes could lead to the commoditisation of their work . . . these people are worried about the ease with which they could be replaced."

This issue looks even more serious when considered from a less personal point of view. Will education become a winner-takes-all market? If students at the University of West Kesteven all choose to spend their tuition credits on a course from MIT, will diversity suffer? Lefrere muses: "If you think in Darwinian terms, it does not help a society to have just one way of living or teaching."

His UK IMS colleague Oleg Liber, based at Bangor, counters this: "The aim is to create a level playing field. Interoperability allows all sorts of people to play in this market; the idea is that it won't be weighted in favour of anyone." He notes that "Singapore, say, may offer just the courses it is famous for . . . and the UK could be a net earner. Even if we do not get students to come here from elsewhere we could be selling them our resources - the Bodleian and so on."

Linked to this choice between the winner-takes-all and the 100-flowers-bloom models of the educational network is the method of payment. Many people are keen on institutions and students making transactions through tokens of educational value, similar to LETS (Local Exchange and Trading Systems) which they hope would level the playing field between stronger and weaker institutions, and between richer and poorer students. Some attribute this idea to Cox, who protests that his idea is currency-independent.

The other huge issue which the vision of a global market in educational objects raises is the nature and practice of authorship. Academic publishers in the US and UK are accustomed to authors handing over their work lock, stock and barrel. When the journal Science ran a paper challenging this, it still insisted on having all rights in that paper. But under the law of France and Germany, for example, this is not possible.

Both staff and outside contributors to Le Monde retain all fundamental rights, and merely license their work to the publisher. Cox sees this as "a particularly nice example of a higher-granularity product," composed of many smaller objects which are products in their own right. His proposal supports multiple levels of granularity. Such issues will become prominent as IMS and educational e-commerce move beyond the English-speaking world, as they are about to do. Last November, Directorate-General III of the European Commission, realising the urgent need for a common framework for exchanging digital educational material, issued a memorandum of understanding on Multimedia Access to Education and Training in Europe, committing the parties to interoperability. When this was closed to new signatures on February 4, Educause/IMS was the only standards-setting body and the only project with an e-commerce component directly signed up.

Now the e-commerce system developed for teaching and learning is on the way to becoming the European standard for online trading in research. According to a source in one of the signatory bodies, when the signed memorandum is launched in Brussels on March 25, compliance with an IMS-related standard will be made a condition for participation in at least some strands of the Fifth Framework research programme.

IMS The Memorandum of Understanding Brad Cox Fifth Framework

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