Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Show me the $$?: Licensing MOOCs

A lot of things keep me up at night (apart from the kittens playing hide and seek in the bed covers as soon as the lights go out, my toes be damned!)  As sleep eludes me, I find my mind wandering back to the ongoing conversations about US--and global--higher education, and to the role that MOOCs are, can, and almost certainly will play in the mission of post-secondary education. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about what it will mean to monetize a MOOC and, specifically, what it will mean for a faculty-created course to be licensed and sold to other institutions.  Who profits?  Who controls distribution and use?  UT won't allow their logo to be used on, for instance, Classics Department t-shirts that they deem "racy."  Will individual professors similarly be able to control the distribution and use of their courses?  Will they collect royalties, as they currently do from published books?  What financial cut will course designers, assessment specialists, and producers get (if any)?

In the academy, there is the odd but persistent notion that faculty don't and shouldn't care about money.  While it is certainly true that many of us are not compensated all that well for our time or level of education and accomplishment, we also have mortgages (or rent) to pay and all the other costs associated with living the middle class life.  The halls of a university remain one of the few places where money should be discussed only in hushed voices and with at least slight scorn.  Like the monks of old, we pretend that we have sworn off worldly indulgences and revel in the joy of asceticism.  Slowly, as younger generations of scholars from middle-class and even lower class backgrounds opt for an academic career, this ridiculous attitude is changing.

Still, there is no surer way to tar and feather a colleague than to accuse him/her of greed.  I was the victim of just such an accusation when, in the midst of negotiating the terms of a pre-emptive offer that barely headed off an actual offer, I dared to ask for an additional $3K to be added to the $4K in salary that was part of the offer--the audacity!  the greed!  Initially, a small group of co-workers (they suggested that I had somehow invented the potential of a job offer--an utter impossibility in the small discipline of Classics--and demanded that the university administration investigate.  They did (all without my knowledge until a few years post factum) and found that I had acted ethically.  Despite being told that their accusations were baseless, they revived them when I came up for tenure, attempting to suggest that such a greedy and unethical character was surely undeserving (too bad I had stellar letters of support as well as an excellent teaching and service record).  One co-worker continued to try to smear my reputation with my colleagues by asserting, in essence, that I was greedy and depriving them of money.  It is a strategy that seems ludicrous to anyone in the "real world"; but I suspect that other faculty can understand why money is such a delicate subject, particularly at a time when there are fewer resources to go around (UT, for instance, has essentially stopped giving across-the-board raises and insists that departments reward only a percentage of the faculty in each department--a strategy that helps weak departments and punishes strong departments).

With the creation of MOOC Incs., however, we have corporate interests setting up shop in the middle of the campus quad.  Yet many of the creators of the product--chief among them, faculty--have no sense of "how to do business"; and, in fact, have spent their careers giving away their time for free.  Academic journals and presses depend on very cheap (essentially free) labor from the faculty who serve as reviewers.  During the tenure process, faculty review the work and write letters of support (or not) for their peers at other institutions without any compensation.  We review books in exchange for a copy of the book.  Many of us work long hours teaching and mentoring graduate and undergraduate students off the books (e.g. reading drafts of dissertation chapters during the summer or winter break; doing practice job interviews; supervising their teaching).  Without the large amounts of uncompensated labor of faculty, much that happens at a university and in the scholarly publishing world simply wouldn't be possible.  But it could be argued that the time has come for faculty to take an active interest in ensuring that they are being fairly compensated for their work, particularly if others are going to profit from it.

But this is where things get a bit messy.  As I understand it, universities (not individual faculty members or the MOOC Incs) retain the rights to the particular courses offered on the MOOC platforms.  At present, this is a reasonable arrangement: the university pays the salary of the faculty member who creates a course and then controls access to that course.  No harm done.  When the MOOC Inc founders start to talk about licensing courses, however, the   situation gets substantially more complicated.  First of all, this means that once a course is created and handed over to a university, the university can distribute that course however it wants to and controls all profits made from any licensing deals.  Even the oldest faculty dinosaur understands the insanity of writing a textbook then giving it away;  and then allowing his home institution to sell copies of it and keep the profits.  So why are we doing this with MOOCs?  Why are faculty not proceeding with caution to ensure that deals are in place that give them control of how their courses are distributed and outline their financial stake if a course is licensed?

The move to licensing courses, particularly those of the "best professors at the best institutions" (aka the elite, private institutions in the MOOC stables), seems inevitable.  Likewise, it seems inevitable that those courses will be "curated" at other campuses with non-specialist faculty, probably low-salaried lecturers/grad students in order to cut costs.  I know I'm not the only person who worries about the consequences of such a move (the faculty union at UC Santa Cruz is worried).  I have been very grateful that the ITS department in my own College of Liberal Arts was very prescient on this issue and made sure that all material created using their lecture capture technology--Echo360--remains the property of the instructor.  They distribute it for us but we always retain control of our content.  Sure, I am creating that content in my role as a professor at the University of Texas; and the Texas logo is prominently displayed.  But it is mine. There is no reason that a similar deal could not be put in place for faculty (and teams of learning specialists) who are providing the content for MOOCs.

At present, this conversation is a strange mix of venture capitalists who want to get a return on their investment; Ivy League and other institutions claiming that they are motivated by altruism and a desire to make the world a better place; and faculty who are excited by the opportunity to experiment in a new medium.  Still, this is not a neighborly barn-raising; and faculty need to think long and hard about their willingness to give away their intellectual product.  It is not greedy to ask to be compensated, in the short and long-term, for one's work.  It's good common sense.

Addendum (3/27/13): "Half the professoriate will kill the other half for free", about the economics of MOOCs:  "Who benefits when the professor and the teaching assistants all work for free? The MOOC provider, of course. It’s digital sharecropping at its exploitive best."

"Are the costs of 'free' too high in online education,"  a thoughtful article by Michael Cusumano, a professor at the Sloan School of Management at MIT.  Writes Cusumano, "My fear is that we’re plunging forward with these massively free online education resources and we’re not thinking much about the economics."  (and the New York Times coverage of the article)

5/31/2013: A leaked copy of Coursera's contract with University of Michigan, including possible revenue models

6/13/2013: Colleen Flaherty, "It's My Business" (why professors should protect their Intellectual Property more zealously)

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