Everyone knows that creativity and productivity are increasingly given away for free these days, particularly when it comes to technology products and services. For example: we contribute to the business of companies like Google and Facebook by giving them our data to resell, and we contribute to the business of companies like Apple by providing speculative, often free apps to bolster the health of its hardware ecosystem.
But both of those sorts of transactions are conducted between individuals and corporations, or corporations and corporations. What if anything changes when universities and students get involved?
I’m wondering about this because recently I’ve had a number of conversations with hardware and software platform manufacturers about getting those platforms into the hands of Georgia Tech students. Course exercises, hackathons, game jams, and other contexts for this practice are often proposed. Overall these are good ideas. They help the students see real and current platforms, even if they never succeed at making anything releasable on them. And my contacts in these companies are good, decent people who are not out to manipulate or dupe me.
At the same time, there’s a tacit assumption that this kind of effort should come for free, despite the fact that it has clear and obvious value for them. On the one hand, companies clearly seem to value it—they employ professionals with titles like ‘evangelist’ to get universities to adopt and use their technologies, and they seem to value the opportunity to advertise formal or informal partnerships with prestigious universities. But on the other hand, in exchange universities and their students receive little more than “donated” hardware and software and the hypothetical possibility of an internship or the even more unlikely promise of a hit product. Not to mention the fact that any such activity has to act as a kind of tacit endorsement of a company and its product, even if such endorsement is explicitly denied. Or looking at things differently, selecting one platform, product, or company for participation means that some other activity—including non-corporate, public infrastructures—might be foregone.
I want to be clear here: I’m not suggesting that small, new companies are deliberately out to manipulate universities to get something for nothing. This sort of practice is just in the air now, for better or worse. My question is: as educators, how ought we to negotiate such matters? What are the practices others are using? I know some university programs charge companies an annual “recruitment fee” for gaining access to their students for possible hiring, but that sort of arrangement doesn’t really cover informal, ad-hoc efforts like the ones I’m thinking of. Others offer specific opportunities for privately sponsored development activities, such as capstone projects. Others may see hackathons and other less formal activities as harmless freebies that provide welcome entrées into certain types of professionalization, while others may believe that informal corporate partners might turn into formal ones, offering sponsored research funds or corporate gifts. And still others may just not worry about this sort of thing at all, taking a “the more the merrier” approach to exposing students to different platforms, opportunities, and organizations.
All that notwithstanding, I can’t shake the idea that we just don’t seem to talk much about how the culture of free access with benefits has become a part of university life in computing and related fields. Are we inadvertently subsidizing corporations without knowing it? Are we deliberately doing so having considered the matter fully? Is something else going on entirely? In the grand scheme of things, this may seem like a fairly unimportant matter compared to more urgent issues of privatization, but maybe all of those matters are actually connected.