Keeping MOOCs Open

Timothy Vollmer

MOOCs — or Massive Open Online Courses — have been getting a lot of attention lately. Just in the last year or so, there’s been immense interest in the potential for large scale online learning, with significant investments being made in companies (Coursera, Udacity, Udemy), similar non-profit initiatives (edX) and learning management systems (Canvas, Blackboard). The renewed interest in MOOCs was ignited after last year’s Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course offered via Stanford University, when over 160,000 people signed up to take the free online course. The idea of large-scale, free online education has been around for quite some time. Some examples include David Wiley’s 2007 Introduction to Open Education; Connectivism and Connective Knowledge, led by George Siemens and Stephen Downes in 2008; Open Content Licensing for Educators; and many others.

A central component to these earlier iterations of the MOOC was the dual meaning of “open.” Justin Reich writes in EdWeek,

The original MOOCs…were “open” in two respects. First, they were open enrollment to students outside the hosting university. That is open as in “open registration.” Second, the materials of the course were licensed using Creative Commons licenses so their materials could be remixed and reused by others. That is open as in “open license.”

These dual characteristics of “open” are also core to Open Educational Resources (OER). Hewlett’s updated OER definition begins: “OER are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others.” That is, for an educational resource to be “open” it must be both gratis (available at no-cost) and libre (everyone has the legal rights to repurpose the resource). An OER cannot be freely available or openly licensed – it must be both freely available and openly licensed (or in the public domain) to be an OER.

The new cohort of MOOCs are distinct from the original MOOCs in that they are “open,” thus far, in only one respect: they are open enrollment. The new MOOCs have not yet openly licensed their courses. As MOOCs continue to develop course content and experiment with various business models, we think it’s crucial that they consider adopting open licenses as a default on their digital education offerings. In general, the value proposition can be enhanced for the new MOOCs and their users if the MOOCs openly license their courses. A few ideas about why this is important:

  • One goal of MOOCs is to serve tens / hundreds of thousands more people with high-quality educational content. By adopting Creative Commons (CC) licenses, MOOCs:

    • can increase the reach of their materials by making the rights to use and adapt them crystal clear from the start;
    • will be able to serve even more learners because they’ll be granting legal permissions to use their course content in other educational settings; and
    • do not have to respond to individual permissions requests from users and can instead focus on delivering quality educational content to the largest number of students.
  • Commercially-focused MOOCs can adopt CC licenses to make their MOOCs truly “open” (free of cost and free of most copyright restrictions) and still leverage the scale of these courses (with potentially tens of thousands of students) and the MOOC platform to charge for value-added services, such as the coordination of study groups, course certification, secure assessments, employee recruiting, and print-on-demand textbooks.
  • MOOCs can provide features their users want by incorporating open licensing options. Recently, the education technology company Blackboard has permitted users to upload educational content under the Creative Commons Attribution license. Since many MOOCs want to support individuals who want to share their creations as well as open collaboration between course participants, it may be worthwhile for the MOOCs to support users with this easy-to-implement feature.
  • By supporting open licensing, MOOCs will be positively contributing to the Open Educational Resources movement, reaffirmed in the 2012 Paris OER Declaration. MOOCs can be leaders and innovators for OER, increase their enrollment numbers, and receive the goodwill that comes along with being an active participant in this global open education movement.
  • Online education knows no language barriers, and a large percentage of MOOC participants are logging on from outside of North America (where most of the new initiatives are based). For example, in a recent MIT MOOC course with 155,000 registrations, students came from 160 countries (PDF). If MOOCs want to continue to attract and serve an international audience, they might focus on multilingual course delivery. It should be noted that MOOCs that release course content under Creative Commons licenses (at least the licenses that do not contain the “NoDerivatives” condition) automatically grant permission for users to make translations of the materials. MIT Open CourseWare courses have been translated into at least 10 languages, including Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Thai, French, German, Vietnamese, and Ukrainian. Coursera and Udacity have already partnered with the crowdsourced captioning service Amara.
  • Openly licensed MOOC resources can give rise to interesting new courses and educational products and services. For instance, materials released under a license like CC BY can be repurposed and reused on sites like Wikipedia and hundreds of Open CourseWare projects. Adopting CC licensing can support the conditions necessary for innovation that is difficult to predict (or plan for). In the long run, supporting the open ecosystem is beneficial both for commercial and non-profit MOOC initiatives. In addition, many educators and learners want to be able to use the resources outside of the MOOC environment, and open licensing grants this permission in advance. CC licensing opens up a much broader range of pedagogical approaches that enable all MOOC participants, instructors and students alike the ability to generate, use, and share content with each other.
  • Many MOOCs are concerned that their content will be “stolen” by competitors. However, this fear is speculative. There are features of the CC licenses that can help assuage the fears of MOOCs. For example, all the CC licenses provide for attribution to the original author, preservation of any copyright notice, and the URL to the original work. When MOOC material are licensed under a CC license permitting the creation of adaptations, the adapted resources must be clearly marked to indicate that changes have been made, and a credit — reasonable to the means and medium being used — that the MOOC material has been used in the adaptation. Also, CC licenses do not grant permission to use anyone’s trademarks or official insignia, nor do the licenses affect other laws that may be used to protect one’s reputation or other rights — those rights are all reserved and may be enforced separately by the MOOC. Finally, it should be noted that the original educational materials remain intact and preserved, exactly as released (most typically) on the MOOC website. So, there will be a record of the original publishing of the content. But beyond these features of the CC license, community and business norms make it very unlikely that competitor MOOCs will “swoop in” and republish full courses simply because the open license technically makes this a possibility. Norms of academic practice typically carry more weight than any legal restriction made possible through use of an open license.

MOOCs should address copyright and licensing early on so they are clear to users how they can utilize and reuse educational materials offered on the site. MOOCs should choose to adopt an open license that meets their goals, but at minimum it is recommended that they choose a public, standardized license that grants to its users the “4Rs” of open content: the ability to Reuse, Revise, Remix, and Redistribute the resources. The more permissions MOOCs can offer on their content, the better. Online peer learning community P2PU has provided some useful documentation about how to choose a license. And CC maintains easy-to-understand information about how to properly implement the CC license on websites and platforms. Of course, it is important for MOOCs and users of MOOCs to understand some of the copyright and intellectual property considerations that they should know about before they adopt an open license for educational content.

MOOCs have captured the public mindshare as an interesting way to deliver high quality education to huge numbers of online learners. In order to maximize the educational benefits that MOOCs promise to provide, they must be “open” in both enrollment and licensing. MOOCs should seriously consider applying CC licenses to content they build, asking contributing Universities to openly licnese their courses, and making CC licensing part of their MOOC platforms. By doing so, they’ll be best positioned to serve a diverse set of users and support the flourishing open education movement.

For more information, see this Association of Research Libraries issue brief on MOOCs (CC BY) by Brandon Butler.

6 thoughts on “Keeping MOOCs Open”

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with these sentiments. However, I suspect that it is optimistic to expect that the for-profit MOOCs will release materials under CC licences, since their business model revolves around people specifically coming to their sites. While they can certainly claim to be in part philanthropic in providing free learning, they are not interested in re-use by others, which means all rights reserved will be the way they go. It will be interesting to see what they do if others utilise their ARR materials in some way.

    I did have some hope for edX continuing MIT’s CC-licensed approach but their web site at the moment simply has a cryptic “some rights reserved” statement, which is not explained further. I wonder if anyone can shed any light on that…?

  2. I can’t speak for anyone else, but we’re encouraging the adoption of open licenses for courses in the Canvas Network. Canvas natively asks for license information at course creation time, and provides a helpful tool for understanding and selecting an appropriate CC license.

    In my experience one thing that’s made open-licensed courses hard has been the assessments. I’ve tried pulling in courses from MIT OCW and the new Open Course Library (I thought it’d be great to set up some example courses for showcasing open content in Canvas), and having everything except the quizzes included means I still have to put in a lot of work if I want to adopt the material. I totally understand that including quizzes makes it much easier for students to cheat, and I don’t actually have a solution to the problem, but I do see that being one sticking point in the sharing of open-licensed courses like you’re talking about.

    That said, there are still plenty of valuable use cases for open content course material, even without the associated assessments.

  3. I predict that many if not all MOOCs will make some content available for free under some form of CC license. However, I also predict that many MOOCs will be offered by professors who have written a commercial textbook. For example, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the AI MOOC offered by Stanford requires (or encourages) students to buy the textbook: Artificial Intelligence: A modern approach by Stuart Russell and Peter Norvig.

  4. MOOCs can have 2 venues

    1.- MOOC universities start giving credits and degrees after a while,
    then all coleges in the world closed. Only research universities alive.
    Plus 10-20 MOOC universities in the world alive.

    2.- MOOC Universities share their online courses with all the colleges in the world at a small fee, coleges provide credits to its students who are taking online courses from MOOCs.

    The second one is done by ANTIOCH Uni in USA
    ANTIOCH students will take 3 courses from DUKE, uPENN. and ANTIOCH will give them credit toward ANTIOCH degrees .
    That is wonderdul approach .

    Assume colleges take 5 Online courses from MOOCs :
    1.- Cost of the college will be reduced by 50 %
    2.- Quality of college will increase due to brand universities such as DUKE, Stanford, MIt, Harvard
    3.- College will create some empty space for new students since it has 50 % online course, that means 100 % more capacity is created . College will increase their income somehow .
    4.- More people register with colleges since they can have courses from MIT Harvard etc .
    5.- That means they can take later more courses from MIT, Harvard, Stanford as well .
    6.- Tuition is halved + capacity is up 100 % That is a revolution in the USA

  5. One more way MOOCs should be open: Open Data. We should be able to see all relevant points of data so we can freely compare, contrast and contextualise varying MOOC offerings and assess their impact on other cultural phenomena

  6. A prior comment by Brian Whitmer of Canvas read as follows:
    “In my experience one thing that’s made open-licensed courses hard has been the assessments.”

    I gather that “assessment” is a euphemism for “test material”. I’ll further assume that it is the content of quizzes, administered to MOOC students, in order to gauge comprehension and synthesis, and used for a portion of the final course grade. In lieu of a grade, perhaps the results determine whether or not an acknowledgement is issued, e.g. a certificate, that the student has achieved mastery of the course material. I am sympathetic to the MOOC platform/ providers who may not wish to release such information, due to concerns about cheating. MOOCs are wise for remembering that online-education students are subject to the same temptations as other students.

    Yes! It *would* be fascinating and informative if MOOC providers were open, and shared data, in a few ways:

    1. Students submit course assessments of MOOC courses, after completion. That data, at a granular level, about each course, offered by each MOOC and instructor, should be available to universities, and possibly others, who might consider retaining the services of a particular, for-profit MOOC education company.
    2. As Bryn R. Williams mentioned, data of any sort that could be helpful in comparing and contrasting MOOCs should be available, as Open Data. OpenData exists as a defined licensing term, though perhaps distinct from CreativeCommons, even if similar in spirit and intent.
    3.The Common Core* for K12 education methodology is test-oriented, data-intensive and metric driven. If MOOCs adopted Open Data policies, that would be helpful to Common Core, which includes college/ university preparation, as well as tracking of fields of study, completion rates etc. within scope.

    * Common Core tenets were developed specifically for education (though some remains in legislation) in the U.S.A. Any comparisons with MOOC effectiveness may not be of interest, externally. Since many MOOC providers are U.S.-domiciled entities, whose instructors and operations are located in the U.S.A., subject to U.S. law, policy and standards, it seems reasonable to raise this point.

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