A prominent member of the open education movement, former Open University Vice-Chancellor Sir John Daniel, has criticised online education provider Coursera for not making its materials available under creative commons licensing.
Coursera is one of the largest providers of MOOCs - Massive Open Online Courses - which allow students to take university courses for free online from anywhere in the world.
MOOCs have been credited with democratising higher education, making it available for those who cannot afford to attend prestigious universities. But providers like Coursera have come under fire in recent months for undermining academic jobs, not providing adequate accreditation, and, in this latest controversy, not adhering closely enough to the “open” part of the MOOC acronym.
Sir John told the Worldviews Higher Education and Media conference in Toronto that the open education movement far pre-dated MOOCs, and the aims of each were not necessarily the same.
“While MOOCs have open enrolment, many of the MOOCs offered through commercial partners do not have open licences,” he said.
“It would be a pity if MOOCs were to act as a brake on the open education movement.”
He said course providers' search for a business model was undermining the philosophy of openness.
“Attempts to monetise internet activity usually degrade the user experience,” he said. “Copyrighting MOOCs content rather than making it available as open education resource is a good example.”
Coursera founder Andrew Ng, who also appeared at the conference, defended the company’s policy on licensing, saying it was up to universities to share content or not.
“It’s not my content,” he said.
“Our position is that all the content is owned by our university partners. Some of our university partners have chosen to release their content under a creative commons licence and we’re fully happy to support that.”
“But Coursera is a hosting platform, similar to YouTube and iTunes U. The universities own the content and they can do whatever they want to it.”
Creative commons licences allow online content to be shared, and sometimes adapted, by other users. Sir John said it was necessary for MOOCs content to be adaptable if it was to be of any use outside the United States.
“I don’t see how you can clamp down and shut anything when it will take your average Indian hacker no time to cut through your controls,” he told The Conversation.
He called Coursera’s approach “neo-colonialist”.
“Unless it’s creative commons, it’s not going to get used. No one in their right mind is going to pay money to adapt an American MOOC in the developing world.”
But Ng said licences were not the most important part of providing MOOCs, and noted that 25% of Coursera’s users were from developing economies.
“I wouldn’t want to get too religious about specific licences,” he said.
“The ultimate goal is to make sure that everyone in the world has access to a great education and our university partners and us do need to find a way to make this effort sustainable. I make no apology for that.”
“I think it’s better for students around the world that we find a way to bring in enough revenue so this whole thing doesn’t fall apart.”
Whether Coursera can in fact bring in enough revenue is also up for debate. Sir John told The Conversation he didn’t think it was possible.
“It’s difficult to create a business model for something that is free and offers no product,” he said. “Coursera and co are struggling because courses don’t have revenue streams.”
Ng said the company was making money, but needed more time to finalise its business model.
“We’ve been averaging $14,000 per course in revenue without really trying to optimise,” he said. “We expect that to rise substantially.”
“Companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter spent years working on their products before they even started to worry about bringing in revenue.”
“I feel that MOOCs have been held to a different standard.”
Coursera has received £22 million in initial funding from The University of Pennsylvania and California Institute of Technology, along with venture capital firms New Enterprise Associates and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
The Open University is launching its own MOOCs platform, Futurelearn, this year. A spokesperson from Futurelearn told The Conversation they hadn’t yet decided on whether their content will be fully “open”.
“We are currently in the process of working on the licensing arrangements,” she said.
“With 26 partners, this is by no means a quick or straightforward process and we are seeking expert opinion from our founders, the Open University, our partners and from others outside the organisation”
But the expert opinion one former Vice Chancellor is clear: open up or be shut down.