Torrentfreak has the story of an economics professor (of all things) who has apparently received a patent on a way to try to force students to buy expensive textbooks. The professor, Joseph Henry Vogel, is positioning this patent (8,195,571) as an “anti-piracy” technique, though it appears that it works equally well in preventing students from sharing a single textbook or merely checking the textbook out of the library. The details of the patent are hardly new or innovative either. The basics are that the class has both a textbook and an online discussion board — and buying the textbook provides you a code that allows you to enter the discussion board.
According to Torrentfreak, the publisher will also allow students to buy the access code at a reduced price, thus giving publishers the opportunity to charge multiple times for a book.
I’d like to say I’m surprised, but I’m really not. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen attempts by universities to stop students from doing things like checking out textbooks from their libraries instead of buying them. At the beginning of the first summer session of this year, my friend Andrew went to the library to check out his textbooks because he couldn’t afford to buy them all. He was able to check out the books, but while he was searching the catalogs online, he received a message telling him specifically not to avoid buying his textbooks, as it diminished the student experience. (Honestly, I’m surprised “student experience” hasn’t been trademarked already. I’ve heard that phrase used multiple times, specifically when suggesting accommodation methods for classes I’ve taken. One time I suggested asking a fellow student in the same class if he or she would be willing to take notes/assist with reading screens during lab work, and was told that this couldn’t be done, as it would adversely effect the student experience for that classmate.)
I think it goes without saying that patenting the learning process in this way is stupid. I can understand that this professor wants to get published, and doesn’t want people stealing his books. But I’d almost be willing to bet that this forum required for the class is inaccessible to adaptive technology, and last I checked, universities were supposed to be in the business of disseminating knowledge, not putting it behind yet more paywalls. They already charge tuition and fees, and students already have to pay for textbooks, some of which are special editions printed specifically for the professor teaching the class. And I can’t help but wonder if there are kickbacks for the professors involved or the universities. All of this, in my oppinion, raises questions about the knowledge being disseminated. How can we as students trust that we’re being presented with pure knowledge, instead of knowledge peppered with oppinions and cues on what to think? I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but things seem to be getting very cozy between publishers, universities, and private industry, and I find this slightly disturbing. I thought a professor’s job was to help students learn, to draw on their experience in order to teach the next generation. That, apparently, is not the case. And while I’m sure that in a lot of cases professors’ hands are tied and they’re put in a position where they have no choice but to buy into the idiocracy that is the current state of today’s academia, this guy doesn’t help their cause.