MOOCs, Outsourcing, and Restrictive IP Licensing

MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, are here — The Next Big Thing in higher education technology development. They appeared rapidly and unexpectedly on the education scene in 2012. The 2012 Horizon Report (Higher Education Edition) did not even mention MOOCs. But just a year later the 2013 Horizon Report identified MOOCs as one of the two most important emerging developments in educational technology (along with tablet computing).


I’m excited about MOOCs and see tremendous potential for them; I plan to develop and teach one myself. At the same time I am somewhat suspicious about the current development model for MOOCs: that is, many universities are outsourcing their MOOCs to third-party host/providers such as Coursera and Udacity. The MOOC host/provider contributes the technical delivery platform for the MOOC, the overall interface design, and the promotion and marketing for the MOOC — in exchange for which the host makes claims on the intellectual property of the MOOC. It is the nature of these IP claims that bears watching, because these claims can fundamentally change the ecology supporting the university’s relationship with its students.

Let’s look at MOOC licenses

Are MOOCs truly “open”? Well, they are “open” in the sense that the courses themselves are free (usually) and open to all who can access them on the Internet. But MOOCs are not “open” in the sense of “open source” or “open access,” and most certainly not in regards to their approach to intellectual property. Actually, MOOC providers like edX, Udacity, and Coursera are establishing fairly restrictive copyright controls over the courses they offer and are striving to limit students’ uses of course material. For example, in its “Terms of Service,” Udacity establishes clear and strong proprietary claims about its online course material:

All content or other material available on the Class Sites or through the Online Courses, including but not limited to on-line lectures, speeches, video lessons, quizzes, presentation materials, homework assignments, programming assignments, programs, code, and other images, text, layouts, arrangements, displays, illustrations, documents, materials, audio and video clips, HTML and files (collectively, the “Content”), are the property of Udacity and/or its affiliates or licensors and are protected by copyright, patent and/or other proprietary intellectual property rights under United States and foreign law. (Udacity, 2013)

What copyrights do students have for the materials in MOOC courses that they take? The answer is, Very few. Students have rights of “access” and “use,” but not other rights related to adaptation, reproduction, or redistribution. For example:

Coursera grants you a personal, non-exclusive, non-transferable license to access and use the Sites. 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. (Coursera, 2013)

In regards to the students’ own work — the work that they originally produce and post to a MOOC course site — Udacity claims an exclusive license to “use, distribute, reproduce, modify,” etc., that intellectual property, including the right to use students’ material for commercial purposes or to sublicense these rights to other parties, a broad copyright claim that universities typically do not make on student work:

With respect to any User Content you submit to Udacity …  you hereby grant Udacity an irrevocable, worldwide, perpetual, royalty- free and non-exclusive license to use, distribute, reproduce, modify, adapt, publicly perform and publicly display such User Content on the Class Sites or in the Online Courses or otherwise exploit the User Content, with the right to sublicense such rights (to multiple tiers), for any purpose … (Udacity, 2013)

Udacity’s copyright policies are fairly stringent in regards to protecting its own intellectual property — but fairly broad in regards to claiming rights to students’ intellectual property. This seems fairly typical for the major MOOC providers. Both edX and Coursera have substantially the same policies governing material posted on their online courses (edX, 2013; Coursera, 2013).

It is important to note that these licenses do not refer to course registrants as “students,” but rather refer to “the User.” In fact most registrants for MOOCs are not, strictly speaking, college students; in respect to the MOOC provider they are just “people.” For the most part (with a few exceptions), the registrants are not paying tuition and they are not earning real accredited college course credits. These offerings are not even technically “college courses” in the strict sense of the term; they are more like “learning tutorials” or “online interactive workshops.” What is odd about the arrangement, though, is that universities — and some fairly prestigious universities at that, normally paranoically obsessive about protecting their brand — are developing a close business relationship with these third-party providers. And they are embracing a vocabulary that blurs the institutional boundaries between the profit and the non-profit, between the corporate and the academic identities, and between their “courses” and these online-training-modules-that-are-only-courses-in-the-informal-sense.

These restrictive IP policies should be troubling to universities and to faculty who sponsor MOOCs on third-party hosts, as these copyright policies make claims on faculty and student copyrights that universities typically do not claim (see Porter, 2013). Before investing in MOOCs, universities should think about their “institutional ecology” (Benkler, 2003, p. 1272; see also Benkler, 2002; Benkler, 2008) — that is, the kind of institutional/organizational infrastructure they are building when they outsource their courses to a third-party host. What licensing arrangement are they establishing with those third parties — and how does that arrangement change, and possibly damage, the ecology of the university and the nature of its relationship with its students?

Under a Freedom of Information Act request, The Chronicle of Higher Education was able to secure a copy of the contract between Coursera and the University of Michigan to offer MOOCs (Young, 2012). The Michigan-Coursera contract lists eight different “monetization strategies,” or business plans, for how a MOOC might generate revenue, how that revenue could be divided, and what copyrights accrue to which parties. Several important points clearly emerge from this 42-page contract:

(1) MOOCs will not be “open” for long; most, not all, will be developed as revenue-generating ventures.

(2) If the Michigan-Coursera contract is any indication, the bulk of the revenue generated is likely to go to the host/provider. According to Young (2012) “universities will get 6-15% of the revenue.”

(3) The licensing arrangement governing copyrights for MOOCs — distinguishing the rights of the university and the host/provider — are likely to be complex and multi-faceted, but they are not likely to respect or address the question of faculty or student copyrights.

What is a “course” exactly?

Lying underneath the licensing is a view, implicit in much of the discussion of online course design, that a course is a salable object and a repository of “content” apart from its instructor or its delivery to a particular group of students in a particular context (Viadhyanathan, 2002). Too often the online course, whether a MOOC or not, is assumed to be no more than a kind of multimedia textbook of content — with the instructor as the (perhaps expendable) conveyor of that content. I have no doubt that some college courses run this way: that is, as the primarily one-way delivery of content from instructor and/or textbook to the student, conceived of as an empty vessel (or nearly so). In the MOOC world, this is called, pejoratively, an xMOOC. This is Freire’s banking model of education, and it certainly exists, and it may even serve an important purpose for some kinds of knowledge at some stages of student learning. However it is not what higher education should be about primarily.

This view of the course obscures a vital point about the value of higher education. The value of the college course is not simply “the content” per se. Rather, the real value added of most college courses lies in the performance: the social exchange, the enactment, the interaction that happens between content, instructor, and students. The value added by the university is really the service, not the content — that is, the entire learning environment, that universities promote, of supporting faculty development and delivery of courses, whether those courses are face-to-face or online.

Let’s remember that students are content creators, too. The central assumption of the cMOOC — or “connectivist MOOC” — is that students themselves create knowledge and promote learning in their activities and interaction in a course. A cMOOC is designed so as to maximize student interaction, remixing, and social dialogue (see Siemens, 2005; Ravenscroft, 2011). The assumption of the educational philosophy of “connectivism” is that the most important and enduring (and higher-order) learning happens not only in the one-way transfer of content from instructor to student/s, but most importantly in the networked, crowd-sourced collaborative interaction between participants and in participants’ active contributions to and remixing of course content. Indeed there is an even stronger claim at play here (one not unlike the assumptions of Socratic dialectic): that the interaction between participants potentially creates new knowledge and course content. In this respect, students in a cMOOC could potentially be considered co-content creators — and ergo potential co-copyright holders — along with the instructor, the university, and/or the host/provider.

This is not a new or unfamiliar idea to faculty in the fields of composition and professional writing, art and design, and web production, who are, I think, more comfortable and more attuned than most to the idea of students as co-contributors to course content. (Back in the 1980s we referred to this as a social-contructivist model of learning or knowledge development. Plato called it dialectic. Now it is known as connectivism. OK.) For most composition courses and for most studio design courses, let’s remember, the primary course content is the students’ own writing, art, or design. Granted, the composition or design instructor develops or imports much course content in the form of the overall frame/plan for the course, readings, textbooks, the assignments, the principles, the exercises and activities, the lectures, the handouts and slides, etc. But the students themselves contribute a good amount of the content themselves — for example, when their own written work itself become the primary content for a class discussion about a certain rhetorical approach or technique, or when they provide peer review comments to each other, or when they upload readings and commentaries in response to instructor prompts, etc.

Pay attention to your license

Universities who contract to offer MOOCs and faculty who develop MOOCs should be careful to understand the terms of their licensing agreement. What understandings exist, either implicitly or in an explicit contract, in regards to ownership and control of intellectual property? When faculty offer courses via a third-party MOOC, what copyrights are they retaining for the original materials they have created (Porter, 2013)? What rights are they losing or licensing, either to the university or to the third-party host/provider? And what copyright protections are in place for students? These are fundamental questions that are important not only for delineating property rights but also for determining whether MOOCs will adversely impact —or, we hope, enhance — the university’s academic mission, its ecology, and its fundamental relationship with students.



Benkler, Yochai. (2003). Freedom in the commons: Towards a political economy of information. Duke Law Journal, 52, 1245-1276.

Benkler, Yochai. (2002). Intellectual property and the organization of information production. International Review of Law and Economics, 22, 81-107.

Benkler, Yochai. (2008). The university in the networked economy and society: Challenges and opportunities. In Richard N. Katz (ed.), The Tower and the Cloud: Higher Education in the Age of Cloud Computing (pp. 51-61). EDUCAUSE, 2008.

Porter, James E. (2013). MOOCs, “courses,”  and the question of faculty and student copyrights. CCCC Intellectual Property Annual. Forthcoming.

Ravenscroft, Andrew. (2011). Dialogue and connectivism: A new approach to understanding and promoting dialogue-rich networked learning. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(3), 139-160.

Siemens, George. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for a digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(1), 3-10.

Viadhyanathan, Siva. (2002). The content-provider paradox: Universities in the information ecosystem. Academe, 88(5), 34-37.

Young, Jeffrey R. (2012, July 19). Inside the Coursera contract: How an upstart company might profit from free courses. The Chronicle of Higher Education.


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