It is estimated that getting on for half of all internet traffic is file sharing. Something like a quarter of a billion users in 2012 used BitTorrent technology (at any one time, this is more than YouTube and Facebook combined). So has this revolutionary technology, of connection not collection, also to hit the world of learning?
The internet is actually a huge distribution network, with a clever failsafe structure. If one part of the network fails, the rest will get the data to its destination. This idea was developed as a protective device against possible nuclear attack. Of course, this structure also allowed file sharing and peer file sharing software to flourish, with massively disruptive consequences for the music, movie, TV and newspaper industry.
It was 1999, just as the dot-com bubble burst, when this new kid appeared on the block – peer-to-peer computing. And it was literally a new kid on the block, the 19 year old Shawn Fanning, who wrote a piece of file sharing software, for MP3 music files, in just three months that was to change the media world forever. It was an immediate success and campus bandwidth was eaten up as fast as it could be built. The digital genie was out of the bottle and it was an immediate threat to billion dollar media companies. Free shared music, and eventually films and other media were now available on the web.
File sharing wasn’t entirely new. A few years earlier Ian Clarke, a University of Edinburgh research student, has written Freenet, a pure file exchange system, with no central repository (Napster had a central server for indexing and identification). The Seti project had been using shared processing power for some time. Napster, however, captured the headlines and imagination. It spawned hundreds of imitations. Gnutella released in 2000 was the first completely decentralised file sharing system, with no central server. Kazaa used supernodes to increase effectiveness. The BitTorrent protocol, written by Bram Cohen, was to take file sharing even higher, using a swarm of hosts to download and upload across networks.
Interestingly P2P services don’t really rely on altruism. You contribute by simply participating. When you download a file, your files are exposed for download by others. Consumers become involuntary producers. This is not new. The telephone, like its predecessor the telegraph, used peer-to-peer systems. What is new is tha massive increase in productivity file sharing provides and viral distribution.
P2P and learning
When I saw Kevin Kelly speak about Napster at TechLearn in the US over ten years ago , we pitched an idea to the organisation responsible for innovation in Local Authorities, and built a P2P system for authoring and sharing learning content across the Local Authorities in England and Wales. Rather than develop a huge repository of content, we wanted to allow people to freely build and share content, using a Napster-like file sharing approach, with a central repository, for searching and identification of learning content. HTML, PowerPoint, PDF and Word files were tagged with mandatory and optional information and shared. The project ran for some time but was eventually sold and has gone back to a Moodle-based service run a private company delivering content to the public sector, who are still loyal to the principle of shared content. This is what happened in the Napsterisation of learning. The principle of free, shared content became embedded in the culture of learning, through Wikipedia and OER.
Democratisation, decentralisation and disintermediation of learning
Graham Brown martin argues that Naspster paved the way for Apple’s iPhone and iPad and he’s right, as it led to disintermediation in the music industry. Does this apply to the learning industry?
The Napsterisation of learning can be used literally, as the use of file sharing software to enable learning. In the wider sense it can be used to describe the democratisation of learning towards learners and away from reliance on middle-ground institutions, companies and teachers. Millions, daily, access Wikipedia, Google Scholar and dozens of other sources without the mediation of teachers or librarians. Decentralisation. away from centralised institutions, such as schools, colleges, universities, libraries, publishers and companies, down to actual learners, through web-based services has certainly occurred and is accelerating. But the real shift would disintermediation. Cutting out the middlemen, especially over-expensive institutions. There are signs that this is happening. Peter Thiel’s description of HE as an over-inflated bubble has taken root. Content providers also have much to worry about, as their content is easily pirated.
It remains to be seen if the education and training world will be as deeply challenged and changed as the music or newspaper industry. It is certainly as vulnerable.
Napsterisation of content
Wikipedia has already Napsterised the encyclopedia business with a product that’s bigger, better, faster and free. The whole canon of western literature is largely available free online from sites such as Project Gutenberg. TED, YouTube and other video services have disintermediated video companies. Open Education Resources grow in quantity and quality by the day.
Napsterisation of software and courses
Moodle has bitten deeply into the commercial VLE market and Totara is doing similar things in the corporate market. Why pay top dollar for an LMS or VLE when you can get one for free. Courses are unlikely to be file shared but MOOCs certainly promise to reduce the cost with their focus on online delivery and volume. Skillsoft and other courses are available on pirate sites if you look around. There is absolutely no doubt that this is rife in Asia and China.
Napsterisation of eTextbooks
One example of this vulnerability is the rise of eBooks and eTextbooks, we have already seen signs of Napsterification of textbooks, which are often too expensive to buy, especially for learners in developing countries. There is now a large number of file sharing sites that had got round the DRM and other restrictions that eBook publishers use. This is one of the reasons educational publishers have been reluctant to enter the eBook market. We may yet see the Napsterification of learning in this market.
Publishers have learned (maybe not) from the music industry and come down hard on eBook file sharing sites. Library.nu and ifile.it (based in Ireland) had distributed hundreds of thousands of eBooks before being shut down, making millions from advertising and donations. This year (2012) seventeen publishers across seven countries issued legal action against a rack of eBook file sharing sites, but as soon as one closes another crop pops up. This is likely to continue.
The technology of Napster and BitTorrent file sharing has had some effect on learning. However, it has had a profound effect on the way media files are shared and, as a consequence, attitudes and behaviours on the web. It’s specific technical influence on learning has been confined to e few isolated projects and lots of eBook file sharing sites, but the Napsterisation of learning in the conceptual sense, where learners do it for themselves and disintermediate teachers and institutions has been profound.