Thursday, 15 November 2012

Never Mind Antioch, What is Coursera Up To?


Antioch Los Angeles' decision to accept Coursera courses and a recent study from the Babson Survey Research Group on faculty barriers to accepting OER has catalyzed some focused interest in openness and created an opportunity to discuss openness in terms of MOOCs. Coursera’s financial models are inherently in conflict with openness, but rely on their courses being offered for free (no fees) without credit. This creates a conundrum that is currently under significant discussion. One way to address the openness tension is by removing “Open” from Coursera type courses and replacing it with “Fee Free.” MOOCs become MFFOC (Massive Fee Free Online Courses), and the notion of Openness is respected and its definition is acknowledged.

Antioch University Los Angeles has recently received some attention for their plans to accept credits for a handful of MOOCs offered through Coursera. Although the announcement received mixed reviews, it is clearly an opportunity to watch a new education sourcing model unfold.

In many ways it is not so different from accepting transfer credit from any other college or university. For years Harvard University would not accept credit for the online courses offered through Harvard Extension, but other colleges and universities were welcome to do so and did. So, we now have a parallel situation in which Antioch has decided to accept credits from Duke and Penn Coursera courses, which Duke and Penn will not recognize internally. To help ensure that their students are getting what they need from the MOOC experience, Antioch is providing a support system for their cohort. If done properly, I can see how this could be a very powerful model.

In many ways this arrangement is quite different than the typical arrangements that most universities make with partner vendors supporting online learning. Under most circumstances, the University maintains pretty close control over the academic enterprise, which typically includes curriculum design, course design, and instructional staffing. The arrangement between Antioch LA and Coursera, Duke, Penn, and other Coursera partners may muddy typical arrangements. We (I) do not know yet, because I have not seen the detailed plans, but the prospect for a for-profit consortium (Coursera) to be part of one university ceding academic control to others through a vendor relationship is something worth watching. Please note that I am not being at all judgmental of Antioch’s decision - I have no grounds for judgment and do not have enough information to build much of an opinion.

I do think though that these arrangements have cast some light on Coursera. It seems that the “Openness” community is taking some time and effort to discuss what is and what is not so open about Coursera and its courses.  In addition, folks are starting to discover some of the basic finances of the for-profit MOOC consortia. I do believe that these are two reasonably important topics that are related - openness and finance.


Well, there is no question that Coursera is transparent about the extent of their openness. The following appears in their Terms of Use:

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.

So, it looks like the Coursera courses are open for free like Free Beer (beer for which no fee is taken), but fall pretty far short of a Free Cultural Works standard in which content can be revised, reused, and redistributed. As a point of reference, the generally accepted definition for Free Cultural Works includes the following freedoms (none of which directly speak to gratis distribution).

Essential freedoms

In order to be recognized as "free" under this definition, a license must grant the following freedoms without limitation:
  • The freedom to use and perform the work: The licensee must be allowed to make any use, private or public, of the work. For kinds of works where it is relevant, this freedom should include all derived uses ("related rights") such as performing or interpreting the work. There must be no exception regarding, for example, political or religious considerations.
  • The freedom to study the work and apply the information: The licensee must be allowed to examine the work and to use the knowledge gained from the work in any way. The license may not, for example, restrict "reverse engineering".
  • The freedom to redistribute copies: Copies may be sold, swapped or given away for free, as part of a larger work, a collection, or independently. There must be no limit on the amount of information that can be copied. There must also not be any limit on who can copy the information or on where the information can be copied.
  • The freedom to distribute derivative works: In order to give everyone the ability to improve upon a work, the license must not limit the freedom to distribute a modified version (or, for physical works, a work somehow derived from the original), regardless of the intent and purpose of such modifications. However, some restrictions may be applied to protect these essential freedoms or the attribution of authors (see below).

The Coursera terms of use probably do not meet any of the essential freedoms. According to these standards of openness, the Coursera MOOCs should really be called MFOCs (Massive Free Online Courses) or better yet MFFOCs (Massive Fee Free Online Courses).


Financial Arrangements

It is not surprising that Coursera MFFOCs cannot be open. Although still nascent, the logic of the revenue models for Coursera bias strongly against open content. A quick reference to Coursera’s Online Course and Certifications section of their publicly available Terms of Use provides insights into the revenue model for Coursera and the partner institutions. First there is strong indication that the institutions have some restrictions placed on their activities, by “...acknowledg(ing) that neither the instructors of any Online Course nor the associated Participating Institutions will be involved in any attempts to get the course recognized by any educational or accredited institution.” Second, the learner “...may not take any Online Course offered by Coursera or use any Letter of Completion as part of any tuition-based or for-credit certification or program for any college, university, or other academic institution without the express written permission from Coursera. Such use of an Online Course or Letter of Completion is a violation of these Terms of Use.” These terms effectively prohibit the use of Coursera courses for award of credit without some sort of alternative arrangements.

These terms help create the market willing to pay for use of Coursera courses for credit, and Antioch University Los Angeles is the first publicly commercial example. So we have an idea around at least part of the demand side of the model. The supply side is covered in the Online Course Hosting and Service Agreement between Coursera and its partners. Reference to the Service/Revenue Models for Online Courses and Exhibit B, provides information on the financial arrangements between Coursera and partners, which is basically a revenue sharing model for services rendered. The university partner renders academic services (product), while Coursera renders technology and promotional services. As mentioned in a previous posting titled Never Mind Antioch, What’s Up with Ourselves?, most university online programs purchase some internal services or services provided by a 3rd party vendor, so on one level, the basic outsource concept is not without precedent. There is a whole education services sector build on various business models.


Financial Models and Openness

The issue of interest here is more about the inherent conflict between Coursera’s financial model and openness and their financial model's reliance on free access (not open use). If Coursera courses were open (distributed under a Free Cultural Works licence), then the demand side of their financial model would become weak and would be forced to rely on Coursera actually providing unique and valuable services relative to the awarding credits, not unique value in promoting the development and delivery of massive courses. That is, Coursera's principle value is in the part of the business model that cannot directly generate revenue because by design, it must be fee free. That is how they promote themselves.

This is a conundrum, which I think that can resolved by simply taking the “Open” out of these types of courses and replacing it with “Fee Free.” So we have MFFOCs as well as MOOCs and they are called what they are. Some are fee free, while others are open as well as fee free. This is good for everybody involved as it reduces ambiguity and helps guard against “Openwashing,” which is important because the potential benefits that “Open” brings to societies is intimately tied to the freedoms associated with Free Cultural Works. We do not want to reduce the benefits of openness by watering down its meaning, and I assume that the folks at Coursera do not want that either. The distinction and appropriate use of MOOC and MFFOC is in part a matter of intellectual honesty and truth in labeling.

Coursera and its partners are doing something that is very important for the evolution of higher education. Partnerships between private for-profit, non-profit, and education organizations is an important way of creating variety in our thinking, creating diverse business models, and bringing needed capital to the educational enterprise. To the extent to which the educational partners have a role in Coursera governance, all the better. All of these things are perhaps essential for the sustained development of "the University." But let’s do what is right and call these things what they are. Coursera courses are not open, they are fee free. I would argue, and I will, that organizations that are committed to the values of openness (as reflected in their governance), and practice the principles openness (as reflected in their daily operations), are more likely to reliably and naturally develop revenue models that take advantage of openness and create open services and products.

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