Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

When the difference between 0 and 1 is greater than the difference between 0 and 100

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Reading Time: 3 minutes

I have been wanting to talk about this difference between 0 and 1 for a looooong loooong time. It runs through my head whenever I teach about copyright. I think of it each time I buy a kindle book for $1 or an iTunes song for £1 or an iPad app for £0.99 (and Let’s not forget that $1 is 6+ Egyptian pounds, a pound 10+ Egyptian pounds).

I think of how privileged i am to be able to afford that ONE dollar or ONE pound. It may seem like very little, but the difference between ONE dollar/pound and ZERO (free) is huuuuge. It is huge, it is larger than the difference between 0 and 100. Why? For the most part:

1. Someone who can pay $1 or £1 online either has a credit card or a gift card. They probably have the option of paying even more. The regular person in a country like Egypt not only does not have a credit card (and this is talking middle class), they may not even have a bank account (now talking poorer people, and I won’t say how much percent of the population are there, because the numbers don’t capture the depth of the issue)

2. Someone who can pay online has internet access. Large chunks of people cannot afford this, or have very poor quality access via dial or internet cafes

3. Someone who can pay online has enough digital literacy to know whom to trust with their online credit card info. And many people do not have this

4. Someone who can pay for a digital book, song, or app, has a computer, kindle, iPad or smartphone. Think how few people have those things, and how people who do have these things, can probably easily afford a £100 “thing” but people who don’t do not even have access to that £1 “thing” (book, song, app)

5. Someone who can do the online transaction to buy something for £1 can probably read English. Think of how many people in the world cannot do this.

Lucky them, the ones who have no English, no PC, no internet, no credit card. They don’t even know what they’re “missing”.

But hang on. Did someone say MOOCs and OERs would bring education to these poor people? What is wrong with you? Don’t you know tat even poor countries like Egypt have public universities, where students learn almost for free? Don’t you know they have access to books and professors and other (often poor quality) resources? Don’t you know that piracy and copyright violation is sometimes the most ethical thing to do? Talk about access, then you need to talk about zero. You cannot talk about one. Because for some people, one is closer to 100 than it is to zero.

This post was inspired by three things: a rhizo14 discussion of this TED Talk where the guy talks about a tuition-FREE degree-GRANTING university where student pay ONLY $1,000/year. Are you F’ING KIDDING ME?!?!? (Couldn’t watch the video after everyone’s comments on fb, just read the transcript).

The second thing was reading Audrey Watters’ post on the Berkman Center talk by Tressie McMillan Cottom – which would respond beautifully the above talk in this quote (Watters citing Cottom):

the hype about “democratization of education” through MOOCs and other online efforts has conflated “access” with “information” and “information” with “education.”

Watters also talks about the importance of context and how one cannot talk about education without context, how digital learning does not change that emphasis on context, and I would add: even though technological determinism is so pervasive now and attempts to do so.

The third thing upcoming start of the #WhyOpen MOOC, and why the ‘free’ part (meaning libre, costs zero) of open matters to me.

5 Comments

  1. Great points Maha. Yes, people still see the world through the lens of their own daily lives and while they worry about the poor starving “third world” children they neglect to consider that education is often free to everyone all the way through to graduate level (and health care too, for that matter).

    In the West such things are manifestations of the Red Menace, so free must still cost something – otherwise “People don’t value it” and we will all fall.

    But “free” has two meanings, and the more important one is not “no money” but rather the kind of free that copyright seeks to subvert.

  2. I hope that you will continue to make these points, and loudly. Poeple need to hear and understand this persepctive.

  3. Pingback: What’s “Open” Anyway?Reflecting Allowed | Reflecting Allowed

  4. Absolutely second Susan’s point above. Especially when these ideas come from someone who is also an expert on MOOCs and edtech in general, more people are likely to pause and think about their utterly superficial “world changing” ideas.

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