Copyright, CC and the Rise of MOOCs

In the October 10 edition of Slate Magazine’s Culture podcast, the hosts interviewed Al Filreis, an English professor from the University of Pennsylvania, about his class in modern and contemporary poetry. At first glance, this seems like an unusually parochial choice: however much we might want to hear Filreis’ expert riff on Allan Ginsberg or Lyn Hejinian, most of us antipodeans are unlikely fly 20 hours for the privilege, let alone pay US$40, 000+ in tuition fees. In fact, most of us are unlikely to even get in to this Ivy League school–ranked in 2011 as the sixth most selective University in the United States.

Of course, even for a regional American podcast, this parochialism is a stretch. In reality, Filreis was interviewed because he’d recently started to teach his poetry course for free, on the Coursera platform, as a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). As one of the first humanities courses on Coursera, Filreis was, as he put it, “the doggy in the window for the humanities.” Eventually, over 30, 000 students worldwide registered for his course (incidentally, this is equivalent to the 31, 000 students who apply to attend UPenn each year).

MOOCs have quickly spread to cover nearly all subject areas in higher education

Founded by Stanford University computer scientists, Coursera is one of several prominent MOOC platforms and consortia–including Udacity, edX, OpenCourseWare and OERu–to provide university-level courses to millions of students across the world, for free. Initially used to disseminate highly technical courses in engineering and computer science, MOOCs have quickly spread to cover nearly all subject areas in higher education. While OpenCourseWare has existed since 2002, recent media coverage, including the New York Times, the Guardian and a cover story in The Listener, suggests that MOOCs have finally gone mainstream.

Far from being a paean to the benevolence of MOOCs, however, the Slate conversation with Filreis quickly turned to criticisms of the Coursera model. Coursera, like Udacity but unlike many other MOOC platforms, is backed by venture capitalists, and run as a for-profit company. As most MOOCs are based in prominent  US institutions, platforms like Coursera can also be seen as an expansion of the US dominance of global higher education.

Richard White, answering a question about MOOCs in the comments thread here last week, nicely summed up the debate. MOOCs, he wrote, are: “Either the most fundamental transformation of tertiary learning ever or the next form of US cultural colonisation as companies and Ivy league Universities fight to be the Facebook of higher education – depending on who you listen to!”

Anticipating these kinds of questions, Filreis framed part of his defence of the Coursera model in terms of ownership: 

“Now, they could be corrupted and taken over by venture capitalists later, but I’ll be out by then. The moment we start charging a cent for tuition, I’m gone. But I have a contract that allows me to take my materials, and build another platform, or mothball it, or deliver it for free on the Net.”

Put this way, All Rights Reserved copyright appears to be a necessary line of defence against the potential appropriations of venture capital. While Filreis didn’t mention copyright, the underlying logic was that by maintaining All Rights Reserved copyright for his teaching materials, Filreis could prevent a for-profit company like Coursera from misusing–in this case, monetising–his work. By claiming that All Rights Reserved copyright can prevent misuse, Filreis repeated an argument which has become quite familiar in the world of open licensing, usually derived from a fear of commercial appropriation or unwanted remix works.

While I understand Filreis’ argument, if we approach the issue from a different angle, the question of copyright begins to look a little more complex. By moving away from potential misuse, we could instead ask: what are the consequences of limiting reuse and adaptation? By preventing perceived misuse, what potential uses–and what learning–might All Rights Reserved copyright prevent?

On this question, Coursera’s terms of use are clear: “You may download material from the Sites only for your own personal, non-commercial use. You may not otherwise copy, reproduce, retransmit, distribute, publish, commercially exploit or otherwise transfer any material, nor may you modify or create derivatives works of the material.”

By preventing perceived misuse, what potential uses–and what learning–might All Rights Reserved copyright prevent?

The problem with this, as David Wiley puts it, is that “Successful educators share most completely with the most students.” By using ARR in education, learning becomes a highly structured and centralised experience; some potentially important activities for non-American learners, like remixing and sharing course materials, become illegal.

It is also likely that, without the ability to adapt and redistribute course materials, MOOCs will remain, to their detriment, culturally specific; this means that the accusation of ‘cultural imperialism’ becomes that much more likely to stick.

This issue becomes more stark when we consider that, according to two reports from UNESCO, we will need between 100 and 150 million extra places to meet demand from qualified students who cannot afford to access existing institutions. According to Stamenka Uvalić-Trumbić of UNESCO, “Accommodating the additional 98 million students would require more than four major universities (30,000 students) to open every week for the next fifteen years

For this reason, the OER university (OERu), a consortium of higher education institutions including the University of Canterbury, Otago Polytechnic and NMIT, has decided to only use teaching materials licensed under Creative Commons. Its pilot course, Regional Relations in Asia and the Pacific, run out of the University of Southern Queensland, begins on November 23.

Unlike most other MOOCs, which usually offer no more than a certificate of completion, this course will be run for academic credit. As Wayne Mackintosh wrote during our OA Week coverage, “using OER it is possible to build a parallel learning universe to provide more affordable education for learners currently excluded from the formal education sector.”

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2 Responses to Copyright, CC and the Rise of MOOCs

  1. Richard White (@rkawhite) 31 October 2012 at 2:22 pm #

    Excellent post, Matt. (And nice to be quoted!)

    I have enrolled in several MOOCs, really as a lurker rather than a learner to see what rights they assign to their materials. None of the ones I’ve enrolled in (Udacity x1, edX x2, Coursera x2) has used a CC licence.

    In fact the terms of use for each are much as you describe for Coursera above. edX I might have expected to be different (given MIT’s CC approach to OpenCourseWare). Their terms of service are a typical all rights reserved statement – but their web site does rather mysteriously say at the bottom of each page: “© 2012 edX, some rights reserved.” – which led me to hope that they were going to take a CC approach but hadn’t got around to explaining this yet due to the unseemly haste with which a lot of these initiatives have been undertaken. However, each of the two edX courses I enrolled in had no rights statements on the materials themselves meaning a default all rights reserved licence would apply. Thus, no re-use is possible.

    • Matt 31 October 2012 at 2:59 pm #

      It’s unfortunate that edX haven’t clarified their licensing. Part of the point of using CC, after all, would be to not only make reuse legal, but to actively encourage innovative adaptation (and, of course, learning).

      And yeah, your quote was too good not to use!