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Why SOPA Could Kill the Open Education Resource Movement

If SOPA passes, global knowledge sharing could come to a grinding halt.

Thanks to the Open Education Resource movement, remixing and redistributing educational content has become standard. Efforts like the 10-year-old OpenCourseWare project at MIT, OER libraries stocked with free or low cost electronic books for college classes in Washington and California, and the rise of online learning have all contributed to the democratization of education. But all that global knowledge sharing could come to a grinding halt if the Stop Online Piracy Act goes forward.

In a "Concerned Educators Letter to Congress" a grassroots collective of OER and educational technology leaders write that SOPA would "chill the creation of educational content." Many OER platforms are nonprofit, operating with Creative Commons licenses and allowing global users to upload content on the honor system. The scope and size of OER platforms makes it difficult to monitor them in real time. Under SOPA, if any copyright-infringing material is discovered on an OER, the organization "could potentially have their domain name blocked by the goverment"—even if platform staff are unaware that it's been uploaded. And because OERs are by definition open to anyone, entire sites could become "unavailable due to the behavior of a tiny minority of confused or malicious users."

A prime example of SOPA's potential impact on the OER movement comes from the application of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Georgia Tech's draconian interpretation of FERPA led to the recent shutdown of an outstanding student wiki that had for 14 years allowed students to collaborate and discuss courses. The school decided that the wiki infringed on FERPA "since a student’s name in a website that references a course is evidence of enrollment."

Pioneering OER platforms could face a similar fate. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the "prohibitive liability burdens" that would be placed on OERs would cause operating costs to skyrocket. Entire platforms would die out, sapping the momentum of the entire movement. If that happens, the "accessibility to huge swathes of free culture" and learning opportunities will go with it.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Scott Woods-Fehr

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