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By now, popular sentiment is that MOOCs—massive online open courses—are the Napster of higher education. They're disrupting the industry in a way that makes everything uncertain, except that the education system as we know it will be a thing of the past.
The MOOC trend isn't slowing down—millions of people are now taking classes online, and more and more university system are embracing the new format and incorporating it into their curriculum. Meanwhile, professors are realizing they're getting the short end of the MOOC stick. They envision a doomsday scenario in which the professoriate is passed over for an automated, convenient and free virtual learning industry. If their lesson plans, reading materials, videos and quizzes are freely available to anyone with a wi-fi connection, will it render the professor useless?
The question has sparked a debate over intellectual property. Once a course is on the web, who owns it? In many cases colleges and universities are claiming ownership over MOOCs, but faculty are fighting that assertion, arguing that since they created the course, it's their intellectual property—not the university’s.
"If we lose the battle over intellectual property, it's over," former American Association of University Professors president Cary Nelson said at the group's annual conference this week. "Being a professor will no longer be a professional career or a professional identity."
Until now, there wasn't much reason to question a professor's right to own the courses he or she creates. The law holds that “faculty-taught courses fall outside the work-for-hire doctrine of copyright law where the employer owns an employee’s creations,” according to the American Council on Education. But since the explosive popularity of MOOCs, universities stand something to gain by retaining ownership over a course even without the original professor. Though some super-star teachers attract potential students on their own, more often than not students choose a course based on the institution offering it.
Thus, the debate has entered the finer points of intellectual property law. Back to the American Council on Education:
There are some circumstances in which course content might be appropriated to the institution. If the institution provides the faculty member with the title of the course, required reading and assignments for students, and a course syllabus, essentially treating the faculty member as a “conveyor” of information to a mass of people, then the online course and its content may not belong to the professor...The law considers the extent to which an institution’s resources contributed to a faculty member’s output; because of the greater degree of reliance on these resources in the MOOC context, an institution may have a greater claim to the course and its content.
The business of independent MOOC providers is also throwing a wrench in traditional faculty intellectual property rights. Courseca, a for-profit company, signs contracts with universities to offer their courses online. These contracts can indirectly mean professors are signing away their rights to the course they created, the Santa Cruz Faculty Association argued recently. According to the union, this model could mean a total overhaul of the current terms of faculty employment. Say hello to years of collective bargaining.
In the end, it’s up to universities and faculty to come to an agreement—never something that happens easily or quickly. Until then, the fight is sure to rage on, with Nelson leading the charge. "Money is not what the battle is over," he told the AAUP. "It is over principle. It is over one's right to decide what happens to the things you create."
It’s also over realizing you could be the next jobless victim of the digital revolution, and fighting to hold on as long as possible.