Professors Peeved to Learn They Don’t Own What They Teach Online

The explosion of online courses is bringing with it a debate about ownership

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It took a year for Christopher Nelson to create a course for a new online degree program in philosophy at South Texas College, where he had to squeeze in the job while also teaching classes in logic, ethics, and social and political philosophy.

A Kierkegaard scholar and published author with two advanced degrees, Nelson handed over the course to the university when he was finished. Then he did something instructors of conventional courses historically have almost never done: Under rules established by his college, he abandoned all control of it, surrendering any say in how or when the class will be revised, or who will teach it.

“My understanding is, tragically, they can do whatever they want with it,” Nelson said.

“This is something of the wave of the future,” he added: Professors create and package the course, but then their university employers simply say: “Thank you very much.”

Now, as online courses soar in popularity, a battle is beginning over who should own them. Though little noticed, it’s a fight that could change longstanding traditions about faculty control of classes they create, and influence the future and success of online higher education.

Universities hope to make money off these courses, which can enroll thousands of paying students instead of the few hundred who can fit inside the largest brick-and-mortar lecture halls. But many faculty fear their work may be altered for the worse, or that universities will employ other, less-qualified people to teach them.

“There’s no clarity in the field right now about ownership,” said Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy. “This is something that will probably need to be resolved, but it’s hard to tackle.”

And it’s only getting harder.

About 70 percent of 110 higher education institutions surveyed by Jeff Hoyt, an assistant vice dean at Middle Tennessee State University, have already locked in policies about who owns online courses. And only 10 percent let faculty keep sole ownership. More than a third of universities claim complete control over courses and materials for themselves, the survey found, and another 41 percent allow for joint ownership—meaning, for example, that professors might own the course materials they write but their colleges or universities keep the multimedia components.

Fast-growing third-party providers such as the Harvard-MIT collaboration edX, which collects and distributes courses from at least 30 universities around the world, leave the question to be resolved by member institutions.

“We don’t own it. The university does,” said Tena Herlihy, general counsel for edX. “The universities create the course and the content.”

No, say angry faculty, universities don’t create anything. They do.

The faculty union at the University of California at Santa Cruz, the only UC campus to have a union for tenured faculty that collectively bargains, has been fighting with that school’s administration over intellectual property rights since it was told that anyone who created an online course for the Stanford online-education spinoff Coursera would have to sign a waiver giving up ownership.

Under California law, the union pointed out, individual professors and not their universities own the rights to the course materials they create. Association leaders say the university has told them that Coursera is retooling its course development agreement in response to “legal concerns.” Coursera, which has different arrangements with different universities, won’t say what those changes will entail, and neither Coursera nor the union responded to repeated requests for comment.

“The bottom line is that there is no need for a university to own your course in order to use it,” said Cary Nelson, former president of the American Association of University Professors and lead author of a new AAUP report that raises alarms about who owns online courses.

“If you’ve designed the thing, you want to be the only one responsible for updating and revising it,” Nelson added. “You don’t want to be designing a course and then discover that the university has asked someone else to update it.”

The AAUP contends that universities are “escalating” their demands to keep full ownership of online courses and other instructional materials. Among other cases, they cite new guidelines at the University of Pennsylvania to restrict faculty from doing work for online education companies other than Penn itself, which wants the right of first refusal for its professors’ work.

Nelson said faculty need to show a united front.

“If the rest of your colleagues are going belly up, you aren’t going to claim your rights,” he said.

Two professors who previously worked at Arizona State University have sued ASU for using an online course they created, purportedly without their permission. The professors, Jeff MacSwan and his wife, Kellie Rolstad, who both now work at the University of Maryland, said they were told while developing the course that they would keep ownership of it.

But ASU ultimately paid other people to teach the course, which relied heavily on recorded lectures and narrated PowerPoint slides MacSwan and Rolstad argue they created. The suit was dismissed by a federal court, but the two are now appealing.

“It really has big consequences for higher education potentially,” McSwan said. “If universities can take course content and do whatever they want with it, then faculty don’t control the curriculum any more.”

But many faculty are happy to give up ownership for the sake of being able to reach more students, as they can do online. And universities argue that they are investing considerable resources in the development of online courses and have a right to own them.

Hoyt, in his survey, also found that 82 percent of universities pay faculty extra to develop online courses.

Even as the Santa Cruz union protests, some faculty there and at other California universities are enthusiastically developing and teaching online courses. Kalju Kahn, a professor of chemistry at the University of California at Santa Barbara, compared online courses to academic textbooks: Professors can decide whether or not to produce them, and there can be varying degrees of ownership for the author, the university, and the publisher.

“Where exactly the line goes, it’s a case-by-case basis,” Kahn said.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.