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What is the intellectual property of a MOOC?

12.21.2013
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Massive Open Online Courses have undoubtedly been big news over the past 18 months.  Despite the growing number of institutions offering course material on platforms such as Coursera and edX, there still remain some wrinkles to iron out before the marriage is a truly harmonious one you feel.

One of those is surrounding intellectual property.  For instance, can other institutions use the online material created by a professor for their MOOC?  What happens to the course should the professor move on to another institution?

It’s an area the American Association of University Professors believe is a pressing issue.

“I would say that the battle is with (university) administrators. Intellectual property is the source to a lot of conflicts at the moment, and will be so in following years,” said the association’s former president, Cary Nelson.

In an attempt to educate academics on their legal rights, the organisation has recently launched a campaign to educate them, with a new set of guidelines set to be published next month.

The issue was emphasised by a recent deal between the University of Pennsylvania and Antioch University that saw Antioch purchase the rights to a MOOC on modern and contemporary poetry.  The contract between Coursera and Penn prohibited modifications to the course, but Antioch could use it at any time, and it could choose to use only parts of the video.

“There are a lot of factors that go into a decision like this,” said Al Filreis, the professor of the course. “I much preferred the general idea that if people used the course they would themselves participate while I’m offering the course.”

At the moment, there isn’t really any standard agreement between schools and MOOC platforms over IP issues, with each course having bespoke agreements at the university level.

“As between edX and the university, the university owns the course content. Beyond that, it is a matter between the universities and their professors,” said Tena Herlihy, general counsel of edX.

Of course, the industry faces a number of challenges, not least of which is improving completion rates.  A study published this month by the University of Pennsylvania looked at 1 million students across 16 courses offered by the university between June 2012 and June 2013.  The completion rate was just 4% on average.

Such figures are sadly not uncommon, which has led Coursera to begin promoting offline study groups in an attempt to greater support students through each course.

The field is growing and evolving at such a rapid rate that there are understandable discrepancies at the moment, but it seems likely that 2014 will see the industry ironing out a few of the wrinkles that the rapid growth this year has produced, hopefully producing a better product for all concerned.

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