The DoDo and the DoDo Farmers

Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, beating to its pulse, is Leland Stanford Junior University. (1) Silicon Valley has been pivotal in the evolution of the 21st Century High Tech economy and Stanford has been right there, behind some of these innovations, quietly cultivating and farming the Valleys (2) fertile engineering and scientific soil. The locals even call it “The Farm”? (3)Throughout human history, technology has been used to remove the burden or necessity of teachers and students to travel to each other and to preserve knowledge for future generations. This educational imperative and burden has had many names throughout human history, most recently the outreach programs have been deemed “Distance Education” (4) Wax, stone and clay tablets, skins, paper, books, tapes and interactive multimedia have all been involved in fixing and archiving knowledge for later education. Telegraphs, postal-services, radio, television, email and now the internet have all contributed to the distribution of educational programs.Stanford, in keeping with its tightly coupled educational and scientific initiative, has pioneered several educational outreach or DE programs. They jumped to educate on the internet in 2000 (5) and were closely followed by Yale, Princeton and Harvard. Its hard to imagine 21st century education without some form of DE. These days, DE is a pervasive technology, an attractive proposition for students and a profitable one for institutions. In February 2006, Stanford again set the pace by adopting Apple’s iTunes (6) interface to distribute its online DE program. This paper seeks to examine the implications of using iTunesU for Harvard and to argue that encouraging any restricted digital format has grave consequences for any educational institution.

Apple dominates the portable media player market. Their “iPod” product line accounts for 75% of all portable media players sold.(7) Apple constantly adds to the fervor by improving the features offered by the iPod product line. Increased storage capacities, video-capabilities, minimalist design, Apple have innovated their way to a dominating position. The desktop application compliment to the iPod is called “iTunes” and it integrates music library management, portable device synchronization and the iTunes Music Store. (8) Apple have leveraged the iPod into 15-30% growth in desktop sales, industry analysts deem the phenomenon the iPod “halo” effect.(9) A large audience is willing to pay for music, videos, expensive accessories and everything Apple! The dawn of iTunes version 4.9 heralded the acceptance of “Podcasts” into the mainstream. Podcasts are “Citizen-driven” (10) content, produced outside of the traditional channels. Shows are automatically downloaded, synchronized to iPods and overnight, entire new markets are created around niche content. This audience penetration and portable accessibility is what Stanford is trying to target.

Contrast two scenarios:

A Harvard student logs on to his computer and signs on to the internet. He knows a lecture should be available soon and he accesses the course website to check. (11) He begins to watch a streaming video of his lecture. The stream triggers slide changes in time to the lectures. (12) Occasionally the stream is subject to latencies and the video pauses while the cache rebuffers content. The student never leaves his home and is tied to his computer for the duration of the lecture. To visit related content, the student accesses another video on the internet and has to reconnect and rebuffer the original video stream.

A Stanford student plugs her iPod into her computer. (13) She has already added her course to her Podcast feed in iTunes, (14) the video stream and slideshow for the lecture have already been downloaded. (15) The lecturer has provided a number of additional video samples to support the content of this weeks lecture. All of the content synchronizes to her video iPod automatically and once complete, the student unplugs her iPod and leaves. She will watch the video at her convenience several times over the next day, interrupting and resuming the content frequently. Periodically, she watches some of the related video samples and returns to a bookmark (16) in the original video. At no point is she forced to access the internet again. Her education is unfettered and footloose.

At the core of any university DE is careful oversight of “Intellectual Property”. (17) Universities have to delicately balance the willingness of faculty to impart knowledge, the protection of faculties IP, student’s access to content, a fair compensation model across all the parties, and also competition with other educational institutions for a limited pool of faculty and students. Selling knowledge and facilitating expertise is a business and with the advent of “Globalization,” (18) one with international expectations. Initially, online DE was inferior content, low quality and minimal impact on onsite classes. Modern DE is an elaborate affair, videos, audio, slides and a tiered bandwidth/quality model. Copying or ripping DE content without approval, violates the copyright of the faculty and the intent of Universities to provide online access to their content.

Apple already facilitates IP control for the iPod (and iTMS) in a compromise with Music and Record Labels. Apple locked their clients into iTunes, an embedded music store and an underlying Digital Rights Management (19) model called “FairPlay.” (20) This FairPlay DRM and iTunes/iTMS distribution hybrid is what Stanford adopted with iTunesU. The iTunes content (and by implication iTunesU) is made inaccessible to competitors and their applications but consumers with the appropriate devices can access it freely and seamlessly within the confines of one vendors product suite. Critics call this restricted content model amounts to a “Walled Garden.”

Apple has built the underlying facilitating technology for iTunes/iTMS and the iPod by “embracing and extending” (21) internet standards. The “M4A” (22) audio file format extends the Fraunhofer Mp3 (23) standard by including better audio fidelity (24) in addition to FairPlay DRM. The automatic download or “Podcatching” component of iTunes is based on the RSS standard. (25) The Blackboard/WebCt (26) slideshows leverage the XML (27) format for metadata. The M4V (28) video standard builds on generations of video compression algorithms. Apple also removes the burden of hosting content by consolidating the files within the iTMS infrastructure. Content providers (Universities) need only configure their online portal and upload content, Apple control everything else.

The Apple model is designed around their specific consumer. Stanford have blessed Apple with their support, forced their students into adopting iTunes and iPods (if they want mobility) and by implication, forced their students into using Windows or MacOSX. One can argue that Stanford is merely acknowledging Apple’s predominance; however there is one major flaw which makes their argument sophistry. (29) Educational institutions also seek to preserve their knowledge for future generations. FairPlay “plays” into what can be called the “digital-historian” paradox. How can Stanford or Apple guarantee future generations will be able to decode Stanford iTunesU content? DRM is designed to make copying difficult but facile-copying is a cornerstone of any conservation or archival effort. Imagine a renaissance illuminator uses a quill made from a DoDo feather, (30) any modern attempt to copy and preserve his manuscript will not exactly match the original because we no longer have . Apply that model to someone “preserving” iTunesU content, they can only make a restricted number of copies (presuming they can even “read” the format) and are legally constrained to not break any DRM measure by an act of Congress. (31) The DMCA does not include any “sunset clause” (32) and any attempt now or at any time in the future to facilitate access by breaking DRM is illegal. Stanford has opted for the DoDo and committed a grave error by confining their educational content, its archiving and future access to a commercial entity (the DoDo farmer) in perpetuity.

The benefits to Apple adopters are apparent with only an immediate benefit to educators. (33) Rather than adopt one solution, an alternate method without sacrificing any future integrity is to use those same tools that Apple built into iTunes: RSS, XML, MP3 and MPEG. Use the Podcast/RSS capabilities of the Open-Source community to facilitate the distribution of content to students. Rely on the restricted distribution of content to active and authenticated participants to enforce the IP of faculty. Do not lock your audience into one portable device, one vendor or one operating system. Above all, keep the formats open, non-proprietary and accessible to current and future generations. The greater the audience, the greater the benefit (and profit) for the content producer, now and in future.

[Update 20060405] Its interesting to contrast the issue of Net-Neutrality with this Vendor-Neutrality question. Condoning Apples present (albeit well deserved) market-position will bolster an already dominating player to the detriment of smaller competitors. Viewing this as a question of governance leans toward monopoly terms. Harvard has significant purchasing-power as well as significant brand-recognition, it should be used in a neutral fashion, especially when it can swing the balance in such an immature industry.

[Update 20060424] Another institution falls. Berkeley just jumped on board the iTunesU bandwagon.

(1) Commonly abbreviated to “Stanford” in shorthand
(2) Silicon Valley is a term used to describe an area in San Francisco county which historically has been home to a large number of technology firms, its commonly abbreviated to the “Valley”
(3) Leland Stanford Senior, a railroad magnate, founded the University and donated his horse farm for its use
(4) Abbreviated to “DE” throughout the remainder of this paper
(5) Stanford pioneering online DE offering was called TECH and targeted the “dot-com” entrepreneurs looking to extend technical expertise with business acumen and vice versa
(6) Stanford’s iTunesU portal can be accessed at
(8) It recently boasted its 1 billionth sale at 99c a tune. Its commonly abbreviated to iTMS .
(10) Citizen-driven is a term use to indicate that consumers can also participate as producers
(11) He uses his Harvard ID and pin to authenticate to the streamlining server
(12) Harvard leverages the RealPlayer smil file format to synchronize slide changes with the streaming RealVideo rmv file
(13) iPods can connect using the USB industry standard or the proprietary Apple FireWire interface
(14) She has an iTMS ID but Stanford can also authenticate her by tying iTMS into its directory services
(15) This periodic fetching or Podcatching of content (based on RSS/really simple syndication) is the core feature of PodCasting
(16) Apple only allow users to bookmark content in their proprietary M4A and Quicktime Video formats
(17) Abbreviated to IP in the remainder of the paper
(18) I use the term here to refer to aspirations to expand a market to nations located across the planet
(19) Abbreviated to DRM, this refers to a technology to enforce or control digital data and hardware
(20) FairPlay restricts the number of copies possible from the file and only allows decryption on authorized devices and computers
(21) Here “Embracing and Extending” is used in a derogatory fashion to denote sabotaging a standard
(22) Mpeg 4 Audio
(23) The Fraunhofer Institute invented and pioneered the audio compression technology they dubbed MP3
(24) The Advanced Audio Codec boasts of improved “perceived” audio fidelity at lower bitrates i.e. smaller files with better sound.
(25) The invention or popularization of Really Simple Sindication/RSS is attributed to Dave Winer, a former fellow of the Berkman Center
(26) Blackboard/WebCt are an eLearning company that market course management portal software
(27) The Extensible Markup Language/XML is a subnet of the Standardized General Markup Language/SGML standard designed to facilitate the sharing of data
(28) Apple extended the Mpeg video standard and dubbed their “new codec “QuickTime”
(29) Sophistry is defined as an argument based on unsound logic
(30) Or for that matter any stylus or ink made from an extinct animal
(31) The Digital Millenium CopyRight Act/DMCA expressly forbids the circumvention of DRM.
(32) A Sunset Clause is a term used to indicate a fixed expiration date in the future. Its commonly used to indicate the original reasons for the legal intervention has no meaning beyond some fixed date.
(33) iPod and iTunes customers will not experience any problems connecting to iTunesU, however University historians and Archivists will not find the formats conducive their use nor will users of any operating system other than Windows and OSX

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