Effective open licensing policy and
practice for Australian universities
Open Education Licensing - Blog

This blog is a discussion of licensing issues around open educational resources. It is part of the Open Educational Licensing research project conducted in Australia by Swinburne University of Technology and the University of Tasmania.

Contributions are made by members of the OEL research team (Robin, Carina, Derek and Luke) and friends and colleagues interested in open education licensing issues. Comments are welcome, please send to oelproject@swin.edu.au.

shades of openness

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If you’ve found yourself confused about what open means in particular contexts, Jeffrey Pomerantz and Robin Peek’s essay Fifty shades of Open might be a useful read. It goes into depth about the history and context that have led to the range of usage of the word in a scholarly and readable account.

This snowballing growth of openness is socially beneficial, and, we believe, will make the world a better place. The one downside, however, is this: as openness increasingly comes to be the norm, more phraseological neologisms will be coined using the word “open.” As the word ”open“ is used more, it will inevitably be used in new, and sometimes confusing, ways. Ambiguity leads to misinterpretation. This essay is an attempt to disambiguate the many meanings of the word ”open.“

The essay covers a wide range of activities and warns against increasing use of the term outside its accepted meaning, as discussed by Rolin Moe for example in many of the online courses dubbed MOOCs which required enrollment, sometimes payment to receive certification, and in which access to resources is strictly controlled.

The continuum of openness created by the OEL Project team also offers a way to think about degrees of openness, though it is a tool for considering the spectrum of options available rather than an attempt at definition. The continuum includes legal, technical, and accessibility as aspects of openness, acknowledging that barriers to access are not simply legal.

Both are available under Creative Commons licences.

110 million students enrolled in Australian MOOCs by 2025?

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The development of OER and MOOCs in Australia has been slower than in similar countries, one possible explanation for this is the more restrictive copyright regime. The OEL Project aims to assist Australian Universities to compete internationally by developing a toolkit which will clarify issues around copyright and openness in open online education. Many Australian universities have experimented with offering online courses freely, but the complexities and costs around the licensing of content make this more difficult than in other jurisdictions.

In this context the Austrade plan reported on by the Australian Financial Review (Access may be restricted to subscribers) that includes a ‘target’ of 110 million students enrolled in Australian MOOCs by 2025 seems quite ambitious.

The 110 million student goal, equivalent to 21,900 per cent growth, assumes Australian educators would aggressively market online education – so-called massive open online courses, or MOOCs – worldwide. These short courses are easy to access and are cheap, with prices ranging from several hundred dollars.

The reporting, and the Austrade report it is based on does not mention that although MOOCs often have high total enrolments, the number of students prepared to pay for accreditation is lower and  while access to course content is generally free for students, the high quality of support materials and the associated licensing demanded remains relatively expensive for universities. Although widely known platforms such as Coursera and EdX have grown significantly they are still in the process of developing business models that are sustainable.
The Austrade report states that:
International education is currently one of Australia’s top service exports, valued at $19.65 billion in 2015 (including fees and associated expenditure) and supports over 130,000 jobs in cities and regions throughout Australia.

Australia should be pursuing ambitious goals around the provision of online access to high quality educational resources. Clarifying the copyright and licensing issues for universities through an easy to use toolkit will assist in this. The narrow focus of the report on adding revenue ignores the potentials of open licensing to improve access to education for millions of future students and to help lower costs for institutions offering online courses globally from Australia. It also ignores the real barriers for Australian institutions wanting to compete with their international peers under Australia’s current copyright framework.

Does © status really influence student learning?

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In a fascinating blog post last week, David Wiley from Lumen Learning provided a thoughtful response to an op-ed piece by Curtiss Barnes from Pearson titled “If OER is the answer, what is the question?”. Wiley’s blog post “OER: Some Questions and Answers” available here, makes some interesting points about OER and copyright. It’s a great discussion of the educational materials ecosystem and how and why OER is currently operating alongside commercially produced educational resources.

In relation to copyright Wiley points out that [t]he question of whether the language on the copyright page will significantly influence student learning is completely irrational. It is interesting that the purported link between copyright ownership and the quality of educational resources is so rarely challenged. Choosing to release something under an open licence does not inherently change the quality of the resource. It is only in the eye of the observer that the assertion of exclusive rights by an individual author makes a resource seem different, and of higher quality, to one created by multiple contributors through an unstructured process of creation and maintenance. And as Wiley notes; (t)here are no results from the instructional design, learning science, or cognitive science literature demonstrating that the language on the copyright page is a critical factor in promotion student learning.

Wiley points out that OER provides the opportunity for a form of creativity that relies on asynchronous, uncoordinated, incremental, continuous improvement. But we have to learn to trust this. In a world where creativity has been so intimately linked to an individual author jealously guarding the exclusive rights to reproduce and distribute content, it is taking time for everyone to come to terms with new, more networked forms of creativity and how they fit within our existing structures, including publishing and education. To Wiley, creativity and the production of resources in education it is not all about ‘market failure’ and ‘free-riding”, it is more about why people would chose to donate their time and effort to charitable and other causes, including the creation, improvement, and mantenance of … open educational resources.

Regardless of whether or not the alternative incentive models employed by creators and improvers of OER should be theoretically viable according to standard economic models, these models are viable and they are flourishing.

So if OER is the answer, maybe the question is; why has copyright law and its relationship with educational resources been so inflexible for so long?

Finding OER

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While looking for potential resources for the toolkit, which will incorporate as much relevant and appropriately licensed content as possible, we came across a useful series of modules for those who are beginning to learn about open educational resources and practices created by the Open Washington network. This video is a fun and brief introduction that incorporates a variety of perspectives on OER:

There are many web sites devoted to explaining open educational resources and practices to novices and we want to avoid ‘reinventing the wheel’ as much as possible in developing the toolkit. The strength of the open approach to creating teaching resources is that it allows you to adapt the best of what is available and add or adpat it to make what you need. But finding high quality content that is appropriate legally, not too geographically specific, is accurate and suits the tone of the toolkit we want to create can be a challenge, just like identifying appropriate resources for use in a classroom. There are many excellent resources available online for us to find, adapt, and share within the toolkit, but finding them can involve a lot of searching and evaluation to identify the most useful and appropriate content.

MIT Open Courseware 15 year anniversary

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MIT Open Courseware 15 yearsFifteen years ago on 4 April 2001, MIT announced a plan to post its course materials on the Web, freely available to everybody. The NY Times reported on the initial two-year pilot program to put material from 500 existing MIT courses onto the Web.

And 15 years later – look at it now.

MIT Open CourseWare currently makes material from 2260 courses available and receives over 2 million visits each month from all over the world. It also incorporates MITx interactive online courses from the MIT Office of Digital Learning, delivered via the edX platform.

Many of the issues around making course material openly available online that were identified as concerns in the 2001 article, are still being discussed. Will it make students less likely to come to class? Is creating websites a good use of professors’ time? Is the university giving away valuable assets? Even though the discussion is continuing, the online availability of open courseware from universities around the world is now a given, and the only question is how will it be integrated into the future of education delivery.

MIT makes its Open CourseWare material available under a CC BY-NC-SA licence and provides its own interpretation of non-commercial use. Primarily this states that: ‘users may not sell, profit from, or commercialize OCW materials or works derived from them’.

MIT continues to innovate in the area, having just released the report Online Education: A Catalyst for Higher Education Reforms (April 2016) that studies the impacts of online learning on the higher education community from a policy perspective  As the authors’ point out:

…the question “Where does online education fit in higher education?” rapidly leads to existential questions about the what and why of higher education itself. [Karen E Willcox, Sanjay Sarma Online Education: A Catalyst for Higher Education Reform April 2016 p.iii]