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The Microethics of Informal University-Corporate Partnerships
What are universities giving away when we host hackathons, game jams, and the like?
January 21, 2013

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.

Comments (6)
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The benefits of a "partnership" especially in business tend to overwhelmingly favor the side that proposes it.

They also tend to hire "evangelists" to frame the proposal in terms just vaguely exciting enough "Free software! Internship opportunities! New Followers! Potential Revenue!" to trip the dopamine receptors, especially if its only marketing people in the room.

The Facebook and Google paradigm only works as long as the value proposition to the end user (or contributor of data) is pleasant enough to make it worth their time investment. See: Friendster, MySpace, Instagram.

When the wizard behind the curtain is revealed to not be the benevolent "We want to make it easier to share your life with your friends" and instead becomes "We need numbers and data to crow about, and picture sharing is the perfect carrot for this narcissistic age", people move on.

Do not be deceived. Even though the motives of the individuals may be genuine ("I work here because I believe in the product and believe you could benefit"), the underlying motivation of all business is to extract the most cash for the least amount of resource investment on their part. Under no other system could "we need to do more with less" be a totally acceptable and even lauded catchphrase.

When I run Hackathons with my Lab for Technological Literacy, generally...

1. Results of student efforts must be Free and Open Source

2.Generally we do Humanitarian Hackathons, either on our own or as part of things like Random Hacks of Kindness, NASA Space Apps challenge, etc. Corporations are welcome to sponsor local instances of these events.

The corporations willing to sponsor such events are interested in using them as a method of recruiting co-ops or full-time hires. This all seems to work well.

I do sometimes work with corporations with emerging hardware. For example, we are working with Leap Motion to get some dev kits in front of the students. This is closer to the situation you're addressing. Again generally this is also work on Open API's etc, so work does go to the company but also goes out to the community. In this case its dicier, because the Leap hardware spec is not Open, but the students are aware of the choice they are making for early access to the tech.

Well, without addressing the broader context, I can say something about my own experience, which has been on different sides of the equation at one time or another. At various times, I have been involved in such collaborations as a student at the University off Waterloo - wanting the latest hardware to play with. Then as an Evangelist for the Amiga computers working at Commodore. Then as an Evangelist working at Side Effects' Software promoting their procedural 3D animation and simulation SW for Film and Games production - Houdini. More recently, I have been working in Film and Games production, soliciting access to HW, SW, and student grist.

In many cases, I have been involved in collaborative developments and in the testing of products in variously configured partnerships amongst HW/SW manufacturers, Production Facilities, Academics, and in a couple of cases, Military Interests.

In many of these cases, the explicit or tacit assumption was that everybody was benefiting by the partnership, and that these benefits were equitable enough to stand without additional financial consideration. In a few such cases, there was an additional monetary consideration. Generally, in those cases, money was paid by production companies (and/or the military) to HW/SW manufacturers in exchange for early access to the products - the assumption being that this access created additional value to the production company.

In cases where Academia was involved, it was generally the attitude that students benefit by any industry exposure. In general, the attitude is (perhaps not overtly) that students without experience are in a Darwinian survival context of over-saturating their demand, and are therefore in a weak bargaining position. (The common treatment of interns being exemplary of such attitudes.)

This is not *always* the case, however, when there is published research being implemented into a product which is seen to add value to the product... Though I don't actually recall a case of money going to a school or student for their research. More typically, the research ends up being a product of its own - spinning off a business from the research, which then may be bought outright by a manufacturer.

None of which is to suggest that any of this is reasonable, or totally fair. Just my experience.

-caleb

Caleb Howard on January 21, 2013 1:25 PM

I posted a link to this post on Facebook, and a lively discussion is also taking place in the comment thread there.

Oddly, it's a good example of the sentiment that starts this piece: access that discussion requires Facebook.

In regards to your pondering of charging money to companies for the value gained in these kinds of events: I'd worry about the situation that puts the University in. If the money is substantial enough to actually provide some value, then the University is basically putting up a shingle saying they're open for business selling access to their students. Which is troubling. If they money's not substantial then what is the purpose of it?

It seems to me like the main filter here should be a regard for the educational content of the events (where networking/career services can clearly have a role in education both in terms of helping students know what applications of their work are out there as well as creating opportunities for "field learning"). If the event is educational then the university should do it and use whatever material contributions companies are willing to chip in to make it happen. If it's not, then it shouldn't regardless of the monetary or material value of the goods being offered to the students.

A related question is the role of universities in sponsoring the "internship economy" where students and recent graduates are expected to work for little to no money in entry level jobs with the expectation of potential future career advancement. This seems like one of many ways that institutions run by "adults" prey on the young in order to increase profits -- usually while those same adults participate in a rhetoric about the "laziness" or lack of economic ambition of young people.

To my mind, this is an area where universities have an obligation to act as the advocates of young people, making sure they're fully educated about the real career advancement and educational potential of these kinds of internships as well as their full labor rights in that situation. And, they definitely, should not be acting as recruiters for the companies that depend on the false hopes and lack of experience of students to acquire their free labor.

Greg, I think we do a pretty good job helping students protect themselves form the "internship economy," at least in the fields I touch, through legitimate internship recruitment (for pay) and also through co-op programs. That part I think we've got right.

The remainder of your concerns are quite valid. One of the common ways to handle this is to charge companies for job fairs (recruitment access) but to provide some visibility for related events. I think we're pretty good about avoiding straight-up selling out, but opportunities that do arise tend to be more ambiguous, so even a moral compass like the one you describe is sometimes scrambled in the magnetic field of reality.

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