The Case for Open Information
When it comes to disseminating information, the US government and military generally share as little as possible. Information is often overclassified and soldiers are taught to consider even unclassified information “sensitive.” The rule of thumb is to not publicly share information unless you have a compelling reason to do so. This makes good sense when operational security is involved. Corporate America has traditionally followed the same rules; companies generally keep a close hold on information for fear of exploitation by competitors. Many business and government leaders don’t even question this principle. They take it for granted.
But in our increasingly open information society this paradigm is changing. The book Wikinomics explains that many companies are reaping profits by opening themselves and their products up to society as much as possible. As proprietary information opens up, consumers get more involved, knitting together strong communities around products. R&D work is outsourced–for free–to the crowd. Witness Firefox and Google’s Android phone, which are built around active user development. This principle of maximum openness is even extending into universities. MIT has an Opencourseware project that puts materials from 1800 of its courses online for free.
Opening Up DLI
This all got me thinking. What if the Defense Language Institute (DLI) put all of its curriculum online for free? No registration necessary. No fees. Just an elegant website that offers fast, easy access to materials for learning any of the 23 languages that DLI teaches.
Consider with me. DLI has more than 1,100 language teachers, most of whom are native speakers. It has the largest Arabic and Chinese programs in the country and is one of the only schools dedicated to teaching rarer strategic languages like Pashto and Urdu. Curriculum is largely developed in-house. DLI is a government organization, so it does not need to sell its curriculum materials for profit. In fact, its curriculum materials (at least in the Arabic schools, where I study) are not used in any organization outside DLI. The scale of DLI courses are staggering. My Arabic curriculum is eleven volumes, including hundreds of authentic material passages and high-quality MP3s. The curriculum is still in validation and has some problems, but it’s the most extensive Arabic curriculum I’ve ever seen or heard of. I can’t speak for other languages, but I imagine other language departments have equally impressive programs.
Now imagine we put all this online for free. What benefits would we reap?
First, we would put a wealth of resources in the hands of independent language learners. When a soldier wants to learn a language now, he generally can get only one resource from the military: a Rosetta Stone license. As I’ve written before, Rosetta Stone is a good supplement but it’s a terrible standalone language tool. Licenses are also expensive and the military only purchases a limited number of them. Beyond that, a student is on his own. Now imagine that any student in the world could log on to a single website and find thousands of pages of free resources. Imagine the effect this would have on independent learners.
Second, a public release of DLI curriculum would improve language education programs in other universities. It would put more resources and tools in the hands of educators developing their own language training programs–particularly for languages where resources are scarce.
Third, releasing DLI curriculum might develop a larger pool of foreign language speakers outside the military. Independent learners or university students would have more resources available to learn from. Students of strategic languages like Arabic, Chinese, or Pashto are likely to have an interest in the military or intelligence agencies anyway, so the government could expect to hire many of these students in the future. By becoming one of the world’s biggest providers of foreign language materials, DLI would also build a good relationship with internationally-minded students in a variety of communities.
Fourth, it would spread the benefits of American tax dollars across the entire country. This is a good thing for its own sake. You can’t do that with many military technologies, but when you can, the benefits can be immense. Consider the benefits the US military brought to the world with GPS.
What are the obstacles to such an ambitious project? Profit is not an issue. DLI does not sell its courseware. OPSEC is not an issue; nothing sensitive is being discussed. Yes, we study vocabulary for military topics, but I highly doubt Al-Qaeda will care that I learned the words for “division” and “tank” in chapter 5 of my curriculum. The biggest obstacle I see is a failure of vision. A public release of curriculum that took thousands of hours and millions of dollars to develop will strike most people as absurd. Building the necessary bureaucratic momentum will be extremely difficult. Someone at the top of the chain will have to embrace the vision and fight to sell it.
Publicly releasing the DLI’s foreign language materials would be an extraordinary investment in American language education. Our civil and military leaders have been talking for years about creative ways to increase the linguistic competency of our force. This would be one easy, actionable way to do that.