The next major technological disruption in academia, after those in publishing, is certain to be in teaching. It is now both possible and practical for many educational institutions to put together online courses, whether massive and open (as in a MOOC), or small and proprietary. The thrust of these changes is positive for many educators and students: online courses expand learning possibilities beyond the ivory tower and allow academics to reach wider audiences without having to sacrifice the rigor and nuance than can be lost when leaving the classroom.
That’s the positive outlook that’s leading more instructors to explore creating online courses. But this rosy picture is complicated by questions involving mechanics and rights, and with them the looming fear that course creators might lose teaching opportunities to their own digital doppelgangers.
When creating an online course, instructors are asked to sign agreements allocating rights and responsibilities. Having had the chance to review some of these agreements, it is clear that many of them seek to alter the more traditional arrangement between instructors and universities, doing so in a way that is disadvantageous to instructors and that risks undermining the promise of digital courses.
To encourage educators to invest their time and attentions to creating widely distributable online courses, here are two principles every online course agreement should respect.
1. Instructors need attribution rights
When building online courses, universities are trying to create resources that they can reuse—courses that can be updated and adapted as times change. This becomes a problem when the original instructor disassociates from the project.
Recognition is perhaps the most important currency in the academic economy. Academics need to be assured, both in their writing and in their teaching, that their contributions to knowledge will be recognized. Conversely, and just as importantly, they need to know that they are safe from having work attributed to them that is not in fact theirs.
Because many online courses are designed to outlive their creators’ contributions, they necessarily walk a fine line with regard to the attributional interests of the instructors. It is essential that an instructor’s unmodified contributions are appropriately credited. Where they are supplemented or altered by a third party, it is equally essential that those changes are not presented as being the work of the original instructor. If the course strays too far from the original instructor’s vision, there should be a means for the instructor to disassociate entirely from the modified course.
Instead of doing the difficult work of establishing how to best protect a course creator’s need to receive full and proper credit, many contracts are instead asking contributors to waive their “moral rights” in the contributed materials. While moral rights are not typically granted by law in the United States, they are understood to encompass precisely the issues of attribution and recognition that need careful handling. Attribution is an essential part of all academic authorship and online course agreements must recognize it as such.
2. Instructors need rights to their course materials
Copyright policies differ from institution to institution, but traditionally academics have been allowed to retain ownership to the copyrights covering their output, whether in the form of research or in the form of course materials. In the context of building online courses, it makes sense that universities need rights to course materials (that is, lectures, syllabi, slides, etc.) because the university needs the legal ability to copy and distribute them. Because universities are often hoping to reuse these courses, they also want the legal right to keep them up to date regardless of whether the instructor remains available to do that work.
While giving the university these rights makes sense in online education, it cannot come at the expense of instructors’ ability to reuse and update their course materials—regardless of where any such reuse happens. Teaching is both a passion and a livelihood. The substantial effort it takes to create a quality course is not usually made not as a one-time effort, but rather as part of a continued commitment to elucidating a subject matter. Instructors need the legal rights necessary to continue teaching their courses, even if those courses were initially developed to be taught online. Even where the university insists on taking ownership of course materials used in online courses, contributors need to be given broad license to continue to make normal instructional and academic uses of those materials.
These principles are just a baseline—the bare minimum of what we need from online course agreements. There are many ways agreements can go further to foster a sustainable educational ecosystem. One idea might be to limit how long these agreements last. Under this arrangement, if the course is still working the way it’s meant to, without compromising the creator’s attributional interests, then it can be renewed by mutual agreement rather than by university fiat. We will continue to watch this space and offer our contributions on best practices going forward.