MOOC Provider edX Moves to Boost ‘Open’ Status of Its Content

Managing Editor

It may seem odd that a provider of “MOOCs”—given that the very acronym stands for massive, open, online courses—would feel compelled to make its content even more open.

But that’s the step that edX has pledged to take, in a recently announced move that the organization is betting will increase the reach and usefulness of its materials to a variety of audiences. The decision also could have implications for the way in which MOOCs operate in the K-12, college, and adult-education spaces.

The Cambridge, Mass.-based edX, founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will allow the authors of those materials to have their courses and videos licensed as “open educational resources”—a specific designation that basically allows them to be re-used, remixed, revised, and redistributed.

It’s a new venture that underscores questions of what “open” in education really means.

MOOCs, as many readers know, are free or low-cost online courses that can be accessed by learners anywhere. They have emerged in the United States primarily as a higher education phenomenon, though in recent years a number of big MOOC providers have sought to make their mark in the pre-college arena.  

EdX, for instance, offers MOOCs for high schoolers covering Advanced Placement and other high school and college material. Another MOOC provider, Coursera, has put forward courses for K-12 teachers’ professional development. MOOCs typically make money off their courses in an ancillary way, by offering enrollees who finish the courses certificates of completion, at a cost.

Open educational resources“, on the other hand, are usually defined differently by their supporters—as materials that are free, but which are also created on licenses allowing them to be re-used, modified, and shared by audiences as much as they want.

[UPDATE: Those wanting more background on open education resources, and their implications for school districts and commercial publishers, should check out a series of stories I’ve written that went online this week.

  • In the current issue of Education Week, I profile the sudden emergence of EngageNY, an open resource created by New York state officials, which has put common-core-aligned course modules online that have been downloaded an estimated 20 million times. It’s paired with…
  • A sidebar story looks at the K-12 OER Collaborative, a multistate effort to create open materials, which will allow a wide variety of users, including commercial vendors, to use, repurpose, and distribute content to their liking.
  • And in the newly published version of Education Week’s special report, Tech Counts 2015, I profile the experiences of a pair of Washington state districts that have adopted open resources—looking at the work it took to implement them, and their impact on instruction, finances, and other areas.]

It’s common for MOOC providers to set terms of service that restrict how students and other users can use their materials, limiting the ability to modify or redistribute them, said Cable T. Green, the director of global learning for Creative Commons, which is providing the “open” licenses that edX authors will be able to apply to their materials.

When MOOC providers say their content is “open,” they’re typically talking about the fact that it doesn’t cost anything, Green says. But “there’s a difference between ‘free’ and ‘open’ ” Green argued.

The authors of MOOC content—most of whom are college faculty—deserve the right to have their content used with as few restrictions as they want, Green says.

EdX’s decision seems to reflect that belief.  Previously, it was “very challenging” for authors of edX’s K-12 or college content to ensure that their materials could be used and redistributed openly, said Beth Porter, the organization’s vice-president of product, in an interview. Doing so often required users of the content seeking permission, and authors responding to that request, she explained.

Now, authors can use edX’s platform to apply a Creative Commons license to their courses and videos, choosing from open-resource options that set varying rules on commercial use, and attribution, by end-users.

The reaction among edX’s stable of faculty authors has been “overwhelmingly positive” to the change, because they believe it will allow them to reach the broadest number of people with the fewest restrictions, which philosophically is what most of them want, Porte added.

It’s also true that some of those authors could reject the open-licensing route, if they want to protect their intellectual property, or they have co-authors, or if they’re drawing from other sources in ways that complicate the issue, Porter noted.

In a statement announcing the venture, Creative Commons officials urged other MOOC providers (a number of whom have not yet responded to EdWeek requests for comment) to “follow edX’s lead and offer the CC license suite for their authors and academic partners.”

[UPDATE (June 11): One of the MOOC providers that Creative Commons officials urged to follow edX’s example is FutureLearn, based on London. FutureLearn officials, however, say their operation already promotes the use of open-educational resources in a fair and reasonable way.

FutureLearn says it leaves it up to content-contributors to decide what kinds of licenses to pursue—and that in its terms and conditions, it directs them to Creative Commons, as an option. 

“We agree with the principle that it is desirable to open up educational resources for reuse by learners in other contexts, and have been championing the cause since FutureLearn launched in December 2012,” CEO Simon Nelson told Education Week in a statement.

Green acknowledges that FutureLearn allows its contributors to use Creative Commons licenses—but only versions of those licenses that don’t allow for commercial use. Green does not favor that approach, arguing that authors’ decisions on which open license they choose—noncommercial or commercial—should be up to them, not the platform.

A spokeswoman for FutureLearn responded that the non-commercial license is “the option that best suits our business model while also enabling us to make as much content as possible more openly available.”]

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