Little changes, big changes

My classes for the second and final year of my graduate program at “MIT Sloan” start tomorrow. This didn’t really hit home to me until I came to school this morning to register and pick up my course packets.

As always, a disconnect between the professor’s syllabus and the availability of the course materials. Today’s breakdown? I need to read and be ready to discuss a case for tomorrow’s class in Finance Theory II, but the course packet containing the case won’t be ready until later this week. More on that in a minute.

Other changes? Well, other than everyone being a second year, and things going well on the “e-MIT” website rebuild (a significant change compared to recent days), I noticed a wrenching upheaval in the food trucks that line up for lunch along the construction site behind Building 68. Moishe’s Chicken, the falafel vendor who fed me gyros at least once a week last year, is gone. In place of his truck is a poor imitation, the Jerusalem Falafel truck, which offers dry, cold lamb shawarma in place of hot, fried, juicy lamb gyro. I suspect that I’ll have better luck with the kebabs; still, to develop a routine like that and then have it change out from under me is a bit jarring.

The Change that Never Comes

Speaking of jarring changes, I was thinking this morning how inefficient the whole course packet/photoduplication of materials thing really is. We have e-books now (even if they have a tendency to land computer scientists in jail); failing that, we have the Web, Acrobat, and other e-textual systems. Why am I still spending a mint (in excess of $250 today, with two packets still not ready to be picked up and paid for) on photocopied course readers?

Well, one obvious answer is that copyright law mandates that I pay that much. Since the fair use rights of professors were amended to require written permission for use of copyrighted materials in classrooms, occasionally with steep fees attached, we’ve all been paying through the nose for the privilege of course materials that are more up to date than textbooks and less up to date than the Web. Don’t get me wrong; I respect the right of copyright holders to be reimbursed for their work. I just wonder whether there might not be better ways to redistribute it.

That brings me to the second part of the answer, which is that right now it’s damn hard to deliver all the materials a professor may want to incorporate in teaching a class online without resorting to paper. The packet for one of my courses includes forty-three readings from twenty-one different sources, and that’s Part I. I can’t imagine negotiating online distribution rights for all of that content.

The amazing thing is that the readings are that diverse. Given the cost of negotiating to get the readings reproduced, I would have expected the readings to be drawn from a narrower pool of suppliers. In fact, it’s pretty easy to see how that’s already happened to an extent: look at the dominance of Harvard Business School cases in the curriculum of MBAs, regardless of their distance from Soldier Field.

With all of this as background, it’s easier to start to imagine the wrenching amount of change that’s going to be necessary for “MIT” to implement the OpenCourseWare initiative. But that’s material for another day.