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Open Courseware Is Here. Where Are You?

MIT started it, but surely other IHEs can reap the benefits of the open educational resource.
University Business, Aug 2005

In April 2001, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology seized the high ground in the debates about the ownership of intellectual property associated with the teaching and learning process. MIT's president, Charles Vest, announced the OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiative, with the support of $11 million in funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The OCW, sometimes called the Open Educational Resource movement, or OER, is unprecedented, as it is designed to put on the web, accessible by all, the syllabi and materials for more than 2,000 MIT courses at no cost. MIT's announcement of the project was astounding, even shocking. MIT's OpenCourseWare initiative was the brainchild of its faculty, who agreed to surrender most of their rights to the material developed for their courses. This decision was made in the face of a virtual gold rush occurring at other well-known universities; faculty at these institutions were seeking to cash in on the posting of their materials and leverage the huge market opened up by the internet.

The principal ideas behind OCW made waves, challenging traditional thought of the well-established for-profit industry, which concentrated on the publishing sector and benefited from the sales of the intellectual product of universities and their faculties. While the MIT announcement was met with some skepticism and even more cynicism, MIT has never relinquished its position of leadership. Now, with more than 1,000 courses currently available, and with an average of more than 400,000 visitors per month, the initiative is well past the beta stage. A look at what led to the OCW initiative and some of its implications for higher education institutions today places MIT's announcement and its aftermath in perspective.

In the early 1990s, the possibilities for the improvement and expansion of teaching and learning via the internet began to capture the imagination of educators. Internet technology seemed to promise a true transformation in education, not only in its ability to improve access to higher education and reach new audiences, but also to make the act of learning more efficient and effective. This high-minded goal was accompanied by a more primal motivation--greed. Investors, including some well-known universities, saw dollars to be made in online education. Capital investment in sophisticated delivery systems and in the production of learning assets, they reasoned, would allow for the collection of large numbers of students and reduce the need for highly-paid instructors. Thus, capital would replace labor as the most important resource in the teaching and learning processes.

The assumption that a significant capital investment could command a large market quickly proved disastrously wrong for almost every investment in online education in the 1990s. Clearly the market was not ready for the concept of online education. And capital investment proved not to be a barrier to entry to online education. Vendors quickly popped up with online delivery systems "in a box," offering the technology necessary to deliver online education very cheaply. The introduction of Real Education (now eCollege) was quickly followed by Blackboard and WebCT, allowing just about any college or university in the country to acquire the ability to offer online courses.

The assumption that a big capital
investment would result in a large
market quickly proved wrong.

Further, these proprietary course management systems could be used by the average instructor to deliver a course without the generation of any courseware at all. Good teachers could provide acceptable course design and teaching via internet technology. Large-scale investors in online education, some of whom invested more than $1 million per course, suddenly found themselves face-to-face with competition from well-established and locally well-known not-for-profit institutions.

Unfortunately, this shake out in the e-learning industry was characterized by the hype and publicity surrounding few examples of high prices paid to content experts for the production of courseware, and by a flood of low cost providers. It occurred at a time when most colleges and universities had their "policy pants down" with regard to copyrightable intellectual property.

While all research universities have well-defined policies covering patentable intellectual property, copyrightable intellectual property was and is a different story. This is partly because of the low commercial value of most copyrightable property, and the fact that most universities have not asserted ownership, even when the intellectual property is produced on university time and with university resources. Except for the occasional successful textbook author, very little commercial value was attached to copyrights. It wasn't until the 1970s saw the rise of software production, which was both potentially of high value and copyrightable, that universities began to show concern. But this issue was finally brought to a head by the furor that erupted over the faculty rights to courseware they developed to teach their classes.

Faculty members seemed to have two main concerns, the first being that somehow the university was out to exploit them for their intellectual products associated with teaching. They envisioned cost and budget-conscious university administrators trying to extract commercial value from the material produced for supporting teaching and learning, without somehow rewarding the producers of that property. Secondly, a much more sinister theory arose, that the long-term goal was to first extract the content and pedagogic knowledge of the faculty, record it, and then kick the faculty member out as not being necessary any longer. This notion, promoted nationwide by people like David Noble of York University in Canada, gained currency and resulted in provisions in collective bargaining contracts to prevent this kind of exploitation.

However, as policies were developed, a greater Catch-22 on the copyright issue surfaced. Faculty members are both producers and users of intellectual property. On one hand, faculty are producers of material they wish to protect and, in some instances, leverage for profit. At the same time, in their teacher role, faculty aim to provide their students with learning-related material in the most cost-efficient method possible. Faculty often assert their rights over their own intellectual property vigorously and at the same time, stretch the doctrine of fair use in the copyright law to its absolute limits with regard to intellectual property produced by others.

By now, most campuses, or at least the more sophisticated ones, have established policies that are working fine. However, the policies are hardly ever invoked primarily because universities simply don't begin the production of any courseware without a signed agreement with the author. Authors are agreeing to university ownership because it is increasingly apparent that the commercial value of what is produced is usually very low.

MIT's OpenCourseWare initiative played a significant role in settling things down, despite its revolutionary quality. First, it really brought home that courseware is not as commercially valuable as previously thought. Second, it served in sharp contrast to the pettiness and greed of both institutions and individual faculty members who sought wealth from courseware. Third, it demonstrated the public relations value of an altruistic stance. Fourth, and more importantly, it has demonstrated the prototype of a distribution system for courseware.

While courseware and learning objects of all kinds may have low commercial value, they often have a very high social value, one that is recognized spontaneously by many and enhances the reputation of the provider. MIT encountered many challenges as it developed its project, not the least of which was dealing with copyright law. MIT addressed copyright issues by attaching a license to each item in its inventory, providing assurance that users can use the material they find in the open courseware repository. MIT has also resolved many technical issues which arise in creating and maintaining an open courseware repository. It has established systems and workflow processes to help create new online resources, keep those resources fresh and up-to-date, and monitor use. The OpenCourseWare initiative has demonstrated that high-quality material can be placed on the web and, under the right circumstances, used by large numbers of people.

But what does this history and the OCW mean to your institution? It argues for clear policies related to ownership of copyrightable course materials. Most universities now allow faculty members to copyright material unless substantial university resources are used in its production. But few sophisticated universities rely upon policy for full guidance. Most require written contracts with faculty members spelling out the rights of each party. Your institution should establish a database or repository to store the learning assets created by your faculty. This is the minimum requirement and the first step in managing such intellectual property.

But there is another, perhaps bolder, alternative for your institution. There is still some real estate left on the high ground occupied by MIT. From the beginning, MIT contemplated being joined by other institutions in this movement. In joining the movement you address a problem you surely have now: What to do with all that great material your faculty has developed but which very few people ever see. Will it ever be used again? What if you could deposit it in a place where people from all over the world could have access to it and know it came from your institution and your faculty member? What is the cost of this bold idea? Relinquishing the commercial value of the material that you will never realize. The benefits? A return to the traditional values of the university and to the high ground.

As this open courseware movement gains momentum, will people ask where your institution is, or will they know exactly where to find you?

Gary W. Matkin is dean of Continuing Education at the University of California, Irvine (

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