Ethics of Information Absorbtion

O'Regan, Emlyn (
Fri, 4 Jun 1999 19:07:19 +1000

I use the internet to learn things. I find out about things I don't already know, learn details in domains where I have some knowledge, or discover new (sometimes contradictory) points of view about things I already know. Don't we all?

I'm finding that one of the best places to get new information of the really detailed & accurate kind is to find the online course notes for a uni course on a subject (computer science courses are a common one that I use), and absorb those. Some courses protect course materials (keep them local to uni or require passwords), but many do not.

Am I behaving un-ethically if I read, understand, and use this information? Presumably the course costs money (someone somewhere pays for it), but I'm skiving. Even if it is payed for through taxes, it's usually taxpayers in a different country (ie: not me).

Now I'm not getting the course for free, just the notes, which are only a piece of a greater whole. Also, they are published on the web, and presumably the person who did this was aware of the fact.

However, I prefer distance education to on-campus stuff, and tend to do a course by reading all the reading materials, and doing all the assessment. If I didn't have to do the assessment, I wouldn't (although I'll do practical stuff, exercises, etc, as I feel I need to for sake of understanding). So in any practical sense I am doing the course for which I am reading the notes. (maybe I might want to read the text too, but then I have been known to do this...)

There's nothing wrong with reading a text book - if you read a book, you are not ripping off every uni which ever listed it as a text for a course. So far as I can tell, added value from a uni, for any given course, consists of the following:

(1) Lecture content created by the lecturer
(2) Tutorials arranged by the uni (providing a tutor and a bunch of
people studying the same topics)

(3) Course notes (possibly lecture notes) which are not available as a
separate publication, but rather only in the context of the course

(4) Internal organisation of courses (compiling all the stuff you need
to know, which you otherwise would have to discover through trial and error), and providing all the courses to cover an area of knowledge thoroughly (more of the above).

(5) Marking work and giving other feedback on a student's understanding
of course material.

(6) Certification of course completion

(I have missed out some things here - uni labs, computers, other equipment? Have I missed anything important in a distance deliverable course?)

By reading course notes, I'm taking (3) and possibly (4) if it is published. If you compare to distance delivery, you can scrub (2), and (1) and (3) are collapsed into one entity. So all I'm missing out on is marking and feedback, and certification. Even feedback isn't too good with distance courses - turnaround on marking can be quite lengthy, so marking is only useful often with respect to certification.

So I'm not missing all that much. Am I bad or good?


PS: I did all the campus culture stuff some years back, and am in no position to engage in such now. It's better through rose coloured glasses anyway - I can't drink beer at 10am any more, but I can afford heating in winter, which I consider a net gain.