xMOOCs Derailing Open Education?

How much fact is in the discussion about openness/unopenness in licensing of many MOOCs?

George Siemens will deliver a keynote at ICDE about MOOCs derailing open education in part because they have open enrollment, but not open licensing. That page mentions posts by Timothy Vollmer and Justin Reich about this very idea.

Let’s take a look, however, at an actual use case for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (JHSPH), which has been offering Open CourseWare (OCW) since 2005 and courses on Coursera since 2012. If you were to enroll in all of the JHSPH courses on Coursera, and view all the video content, for example, you’d find a mix of items that are licensed with a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 3.0 license and those that are not. This is because that licensure is up to the individual faculty member:

JHSPH Coursera courses with CC-licensed content

  • Mathematical Biostatistics Boot Camp (all)
  • Community Change in Public Health (most)
  • Principles of Obesity Economics (all)
  • Intro to the U.S. Food System (all)
  • Health for All Through Primary Care (some)

JHSPH Coursera courses with no CC-licensed content

  • Computing for Data Analysis
  • Data Analysis
  • Vaccine Trials

It would be a good idea at this point to also review the somewhat vague Coursera terms of service surrounding licensure:


All content or other materials available on the Sites, including but not limited to code, images, text, layouts, arrangements, displays, illustrations, audio and video clips, HTML files and other content are the property of Coursera and/or its affiliates or licensors and are protected by copyright, patent and/or other proprietary intellectual property rights under the United States and foreign laws. In consideration for your agreement to the terms and conditions contained here, Coursera grants you a personal, non-exclusive, non-transferable license to access and use the Sites. You may download material from the Sites only for your own personal, non-commercial use. You may not otherwise copy, reproduce, retransmit, distribute, publish, commercially exploit or otherwise transfer any material, nor may you modify or create derivatives works of the material. The burden of determining that your use of any information, software or any other content on the Site is permissible rests with you.”

Two things are notable here: first the use of and/or. In other words, what you find may be owned and licensed by Coursera, or owned and licensed by Coursera and the university, or owned and licensed by the university. In the case of JHSPH course content, it follows the CC license (or not) as mentioned above. So it’s not exactly clear cut enough to make a general statement about the openness or closedness of licensure across all of Coursera. Next, the statement in italics, actually goes against the license of much of the JHSPH content, so that is confusing. A student of┬áMathematical Biostatistics Boot Camp, could, for example, download the lecture contents, modify, and redistribute that content, as long as it still contained the proper CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0 license with attribution.

Granted, there is other content besides “video lectures” – assessments, discussion forums, and even student created original works. It does appear by the Coursera TOS that student-created original works which are posted to the Coursera course sites would actually become Coursera property, however that would not prevent a student from creating materials, CC licensing them and uploading them to YouTube or Flickr and then posting a link to them in Coursera.

I’m not attempting to argue that everything in Coursera is openly licensed, but I do think it’s important for the sake of perspective, to make sure it is known that at least a portion of content there is able to be licensed Creative Commons, exactly like the contents of JHSPH OCW.




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Clark Shah-Nelson
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