Educational freedom

Jason Schultz, an EFF attorney wrote an entry in his blog about Penn State’s presentation at the EDUCAUSE policy conference on its ban on students running servers and their new Napster program. Schultz gets it right when he points out the problem with Penn State’s approach to copyright problems– they’re simply taking computing tools away from their students and hindering educational experimentation. If anything, computing has become that much more essential to student life and having computing resources not only available for use, but also for experimentation is an integral part of the educational experience today.

I recently went to a presentation/panel discussion on computing resources at Stanford during our Admit Weekend. Our department has been doing this for years and one of the main “frequently asked questions” we answer during our preliminary spiel is “Do I have to have my own computer?” We give our usual answer of “no, you don’t have to have your own computer” and point out the many public computer clusters available in every residence and in central locations all around campus. And while this answer may thankfully comfort the one or two kids who can’t afford their own computers or who don’t want to get their own computers for whatever reason, the reality is that the vast majority of students today are digital natives (see Rich Holeton’s presentation on “Generation Keyboard”). Most of the students in the incoming class we spoke to (Class of 2008) were born in 1986, some in 1987. That means that they have never known a world without the personal computer and few of them can really remember a world without the Internet. Despite all the talk about the Digitial Divide, even if some high school students don’t have computers of their own, they often have at least a “family” computer in their home or have access to computers at their schools. And no matter how old those computers or how slow those Internet connections might be sometimes, nobody is writing their papers by hand anymore like we did (remember “cursive”?) and nobody is using the five-year old encyclopedia in the library for the research either.

So, when these digital natives make it to college and are often presented with, more often than not, technology resources so much greater than they previously had, isn’t it natural to allow them to experiment, to explore, to learn? College is huge step in the pursuit of learning– young people are making the decision to be full-time students, (hopefully) committed to pursuing their course of study. Students who live on campus are even more immersed in the educational process and, as the residential life programs on many campuses reflect, their entire lives, not just the part of it they spend inside the classroom or doing classwork, is an educational experience and universities who choose to embrace this can give their students an incredibly rich and valuable experience. As Schultz mentioned in his blog, both Google and Yahoo! were started by Stanford students running their own servers. Stanford has always had a relatively liberal network usage policy specifically to encourage that type of entrepeneurship, self-learning and initiative. And it doesn’t just have to result in a multi-billion dollar IPO– there are countless ways in which students have experimented with computing resources to do great things and learn important skills, such as setting up and running a server, creating and running a Web site, learning about networking or security, and more. And the rewards we reap aren’t always through enjoyable experiences. Getting your server hacked is a valuable lesson learned early for any budding system or network administrator. When mp3 technology first became popular and students suddenly began sharing files through Windows networking, IRC and FTP, the huge bandwidth and network usage was an early lesson all those years ago to students and university staff– digital music would be an important issue in the future. We all know Napster was the work of a college student and spread like wildfire first on college campuses and while the RIAA and the MPAA might think that this is the very argument against letting students experiment, I disagree. Napster and everything like it has revolutionized the way music is distributed and sold and, more importantly, has made us stop and reevaluate unfair and, in the light of digital technology, obsolete copyright laws that have gone unquestioned for so long.

Some have responded to Schultz’s article and many university system and network administrators, not surprisingly, have commented that they believe Penn State’s policy to be fair and reasonable, citing liability issues. Some (in not very nice ways) try to argue that unlimited and unrestricted network usage is not a right and students should be focusing on their studies, not running servers out of their rooms or downloading music. But university policies should not be driven by fear of liability, but desire to fulfill the educational mission. And to think that coursework is the only venue in which learning can and should be pursued is shortsighted and narrow-minded. While universities, of course, may not be able to outright ignore complaints accusing students of breaking the law, they can avoid implementing policies that will, instead of protecting them from possible liability, more likely only hinder creativity, innovation, and ultimately, learning.