Dear Superprofessors: Your MOOC isn’t yours.

9 09 2013

Dear Superprofessors:

Have you been reading Karen Head’s MOOC posts on Wired Campus? Her last one described the results of her composition MOOC and it’s really quite a stunner. I have a feeling most of you know this part already, but I’m still going to quote it because this point is so important:

Too often we found our pedagogical choices hindered by the course-delivery platform we were required to use, when we felt that the platform should serve the pedagogical requirements. Too many decisions about platform functionality seem to be arbitrary, or made by people who may be excellent programmers but, I suspect, have never been teachers.

This is true to a certain extent in face-to-face classes and explains why everybody and their uncle hates Blackboard. However, in the same way that nobody has to teach a course with Blackboard, nobody has to teach a MOOC with a private, for-profit MOOC provider like Udacity or Coursera. You folks all could have created your own MOOC with lots of interesting interactive high-tech components, but that takes work and your university was impatient to bring on the future. Besides, Udacity/Coursera offered a quick way to fame, if not necessarily fortune.

Perhaps more importantly, by agreeing to go down this path, you had to invite a twenty person team to make your course with you. What do they know about teaching? It doesn’t matter. They know everything they need to know about breaking your course down into little bits so that those bits can be measured and eventually commodified. Perhaps you bargained yourself a good contract and stand to make a pretty penny when students take your MOOC instead of the existing survey courses at someone else’s university. You’ll never meet the professors that your MOOC replaces. Besides, you’ll be in the rentier class so you won’t care.

What’s that you say? You say you do care? Well, if you think your MOOC won’t replace face-to-face classes anywhere else because you have absolute control over your own intellectual property, you better read your own contract. Chris Newfield has read somebody’s*, and it paints a rather surprising picture:

The commercial value of the individual intellectual property exists only in the context of the Coursera business ecology. This is considered normal in a knowledge economy.

This issue becomes clear in the next paragraph, on the Platform:

All right, title, and interest in and to the Platform, related documentation, the Company Website and all updates, modifications, enhancements, improvements, upgrades or corrections thereof, including any assessment features added thereto, and all related Intellectual Property Rights will be exclusively owned by the Company.

Although the University will retain sole ownership of ‘any software, interfaces or assessment features created or developed solely by University or an Instructor, and the Intellectual Property Rights thereto’, the paragraph goes on to grant Coursera a ‘royalty-free and non-exclusive license’ to use any of these University or Instructor-authored elements. You have your property, but we, Coursera, can use it free of charge. Coursera has set up the course IP as though it were non-rivalrous, in solid open source fashion. It will then commercialize this IP in its own financial interest.

[Emphasis added]

Have some of the smartest people in academia had the wool pulled over their eyes by two Silicon Valley startups? That would be funny if this only affected the parties to these contracts. Instead, it affects both superprofessors and the lumpenprofessoriate alike. Some of the rest of us are simply interested in retaining rights to our intellectual property. Others of us are interested in keeping our jobs.

Either way, please keep us all posted. Your business is our business too.



* And if you don’t actually have a contract, I’m afraid the cookie has already crumbled. At least Charlottesville is really pretty this time of year.




7 responses

9 09 2013

An impressive and very neat job of pulling together a number of threads developed over a period of time together.

14 09 2013

CIP writes that “Bill and Melinda Gates, … are having a year-end conference where a lot of data will be assembled. Now if only somebody would do that for traditional colleges….”

Of course, reams of data *have* been assembled about traditional colleges, but that hardly means said data is actually complete or representative (in fact these processes tend to be heavily biased in favor of elite schools), or will be interpreted correctly, or will be put to any good use. Much more likely the data will be used to justify decisions dictated by the current neoliberal ideology–as an excuse to further defund education for the lower classes.

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