Archived entries for access

Gone Phishin’

Oxford University apparently shut down access to Google Docs in response to a rise in phishing activity:

“In the schemes, attackers, often pretending to be from Oxford, send out Google Doc forms that ask users to enter their personal e-mail passwords. Students and faculty members deceived by the form then freely type in that information, unwittingly lending their account to the attacker.”

Oxford was allegedly frustrated that Google had been “inactive” in addressing the problem. Interestingly, the administration’s action was not interpreted as a last-ditch PSA by some:

“One user, who was among a number of readers who shared their negative reactions in the blog’s comments, said he was disappointed by Oxford’s response to the issue.

‘It seemed like a point score against Google rather than a serious attempt to improve security,’ the reader said.”

So what have we learned here?

  • Universities are increasingly relying on online assets from third parties such as Google.
  • These assets don’t come with robust customer service that usually are a feature of pay assets and/or in-house custom ones.
  • One way to gain the attention of a distracted student populace is to cut off access to these assets.
  • This act inadvertently highlights the significance of network ownership in the brave new online world, and calls to mind certain authoritarian social dynamics that don’t fit well with the open/democratic/free online frame, such as parent/child or dealer/junkie.
  • One can imagine a future where universities freeze access to online assets in order to remind students of a range of messages it wants to disseminate, such as important financial aid deadlines or that the big game is on Saturday at Soldier’s Field.
  • While this act was effective in terms of public awareness, no one likes their powerlessness to be pointed out to them.
  • In the end, that user was correct in pointing out that the outage didn’t correct the problem.
  • The commercial realities of the marketplace appear to be a new regular feature in the classroom that was, once upon a time, isolated from such concerns. Did it start with Channel one?  the decimation of government education dollars? The calls to privatize public education?  or the natural administrator urge to cut costs?  And where will it go?  It used to be that the sausage-making apparatus was kept out of the classroom. Maybe it’s not a bad thing to introduce students to the economic realities of the day in a controlled setting, and use these moments to explain why they are, for example, watching the Pizza Hut Totally Blazin’ history of the Constitution With Extra Cheese.
  • Which suggests that the university was also powerless in terms of getting Google to respond to their concerns.  There is a lot of junk to go around, such as free assets and the allure of MOOCs and squeezing maximum value out of every educational dollar.
  • All hail Google, our new overlord.  In grad school ten years ago we used to joke that it didn’t matter what we study since we would all be working for Sony in due course.  How quaint that seems now.


5 Ideas for EdX, Harvard and MIT’s New Online Initiative

Catching up on some older work. Crossposted at the Huffington Post June, 2012.

On May 2nd, the education world welcomed EdX, Harvard and MIT’s $60 million online partnership that promises to upend higher education as we know it. At the launch event, MIT President Susan Hockfield, Harvard President Drew Faust and a handful of project administrators outlined a collaboration intended to enhance learning for both residential and online students via shared content on an open-source platform.

Projects like EdX suggest that information not only wants to be free, lots of intrepid learners want it to be free as well. Helping that smart but poor kid in Cambodia/Cameroon/Canada (with a robust internet connection) gain access to great teaching materials is a noble cause.

But $60 million is not that much money to establish a non-profit organization that will provide no-cost, quality education to all, and MIT Provost Raphael Reif noted that EdX needs to become financially self-supporting. How can this project be sustained over time? $60 million just doesn’t buy what it used to. Here are a few potential ways that EdX might be considering to leverage their considerable assets, ranging from ‘likely’ to ‘wild speculation’:

The underlying software will be open source and not for sale. However, EdX could easily use its open source version to develop custom iterations for paying corporate clients.

Similarly, it may well be that the open source EdX version is merely a stepping stone towards a more elaborate, fee-based version, one that will grant actual MIT or Harvard degrees as opposed to ‘certificates’ whose value are unclear and untested. If Harvard and MIT can move towards more remote instruction overall, it can sell off or convert underutilized campus real estate into offices and pocket a considerable sum in the process.

Infrastructure is one thing: killer content is another. It’s highly unlikely that Harvard and MIT will share their vast intellectual holdings that will be used to populate the platform (and quite possibly illegal) as freely. I can imagine a subscription model in which schools without the resources to upload and maintain similar sites pay to access EdX materials.

In these economically stratified times, there may be a few potential donors looking to spend their money on something beyond the usual museum wing or private militia. For instance, since 2004 Eli and Edythe Broad have donated over $600 million to support the MIT/Harvard Broad Institute, devoted to medical research. Investing in this Harvard/MIT partnership would also save someone the considerable problem of having to choose which school to endow.

Let’s not forget about possibility of selling naming rights, either. Preferably, EdX could nail down a lucrative deal with a funder named Ed or Ted, or even Jed.

If all else fails, EdX can always resort to the classic education fundraising fallback: bake sale.

EdX’s embrace of open learning represents a sea change in higher education. While MIT has offered free access to course materials through its OpenCourseWare project for over a decade, Harvard’s participation suggests that this model of free pedagogical content is finally a mainstream endeavor. How EdX succeeds in the coming semesters and years, however, depends to a large extent on how well its founders navigate the tricky shoals between free and fee-based learning. I — and all the intrepid learners online — are hoping that EdX leads the way in quality, free content for all.

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