MOOCs: an opportunity for professors, or grave threat?

In October 2012, some 40,000 students from around the world enrolled in professor Al Filreis’ online course about modern and contemporary American poetry.

Many educators remain skeptical of MOOCs.

A couple of them, who were to receive credit for the course, were part of an experiment in which Antioch University had purchased the class to incorporate it into its coursework, even though the class was created by Filreis and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania.

And the arrangement raised a question: What can Antioch do with a course after it’s bought permission to use it?

For the American Association of University Professors, it’s a pressing issue.

Among the concerns are that institutions will change online courses created by professors and that professors will sign away their intellectual property rights to the courses they create. Doing so may have long-term consequences, as a professor might not be able to use a course after leaving his or her institution, the organization said.

“I would say that the battle is with (university) administrators. Intellectual property is the source to a lot of conflicts at the moment, and will be so in following years,” said the association’s former president, Cary Nelson.

Worried that these issues will set a precedent, the organization has launched a campaign to educate professors about their rights. Next month, the AAUP Foundation will publish guidelines for the emerging industry.

Since the online learning industry is young, the ownership issues are up in the air, and the professors association doesn’t want to impose contracts on institutions. But it thinks terms should be established under control of the faculty.

The “massive open online courses” such as the one offered by Filreis differ from previous types of online education because of their sheer numbers of students — and because they’re mostly free.

Instead of hundreds, tens of thousands enroll in the MOOCs, which are available for anyone with an Internet connection. The content is provided by professors from universities all around the world.