Udacity Hedges On Open Licensing For MOOCs

While videos from free courses are freely available on YouTube, the ability of instructors to remix is limited.

David F Carr, Editor, InformationWeek Government/Healthcare

August 20, 2013

6 Min Read

12 Open Educational Resources: From Khan to MIT

12 Open Educational Resources: From Khan to MIT

12 Open Educational Resources: From Khan to MIT(click image for larger view and for slideshow)

An instructor who likes what he or she sees on Udacity -- say, the way a particular math or computer science concept is explained -- can easily direct students to that specific video without making them sign up for the course.

Just how far a teacher or professor can go with mashing up or remixing content is unclear, however, because of the tangled relationship between MOOCs and OER. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) offered by players like Udacity, Coursera, and edX are open in terms of access and are offered for free. By most definitions, open educational resources (OERs) are also free, in the sense that they can be altered or remixed. MOOCs sometimes take advantage of OER materials such as freely downloadable textbooks to keep the overall cost of a course down, but the courses themselves are not typically available under the same permissive licensing.

This might seem like splitting hairs, given that the courses can be freely accessed from the MOOC websites themselves, but educators need to understand the rules of access and use of the materials.

[ Udacity CEO Sabastian Thrun is optimistic about the future of MOOCs. Read more at Udacity CEO Says MOOC 'Magic Formula' Emerging. ]

When I asked Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun about this as part of a longer interview on Udacity's vision and progress, he suggested that his company is different.

"Everything we do is available on YouTube under a Creative Commons 3.0 license," Thrun said, meaning that the videos can be viewed independently there. Creative Commons licensing provides a legal framework for encouraging sharing, while respecting the rights of content authors. The only content not independently shared, Thrun said, is the "quizzing part, the interactive part -- because there is no other platform that could run it other than ours. It's a technical problem, more than a licensing problem." Even there, he expressed hope that the interactive elements could eventually be freely shared, perhaps as open-source software.

"The position we're taking, that we've pursued from the beginning, is that the content and content access should be free. Even the interactive experience, the computerized part would be free -- subsidized, actually -- but the services we provide are not free," Thrun said. "I think it would be hard to make a lot of money with content in an age where content can easily go from one platform to another."

"The remixing is a good point -- you certainly can take our videos," Thrun continued. There are more standards for video sharing, he pointed out, whereas to have the same freedom with the interactive program would require portability to some other platform where you could put up quizzing widgets that are just like our quizzing widgets.

This all seems reasonable, but if you look up the Udacity course videos on YouTube you'll find they are all labeled "Standard YouTube License."

YouTube introduced the ability to edit and remix CC licensed video in an online editor last year. Once imported into the editor, videos can also be downloaded for further editing. Teachers can extract a few minutes of relevant content from a longer YouTube video and splice it together with their own introduction or other CC licensed material. A search of YouTube can also be filtered to only the videos tagged as CC licensed. A MOOC licensed in this way would be on par with an OER textbook, like the ones from OpenStax College, which instructors can use as is or with their own modifications.

However, there are actually several variants of the CC license, and the YouTube program is specific to CC BY -- the most permissive version, requiring only attribution for content to be shared or remixed. YouTube's online editor helps users stay compliant with licensing terms by automatically inserting attribution for remixed content.

To provide flexibility for content authors, the non-profit organization behind Creative Commons also provides licenses that can be more restrictive or encourage even more sharing -- such as a "share alike" provision requiring that works derived from CC also be available under the same terms.

Udacity's Terms of Service specify that content is published under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License, the most restrictive version. This means Udacity videos are sharable only for non-commercial purposes, and derivative works are expressly prohibited. In other words, you may not edit or alter any of those Udacity videos on YouTube, even though they are freely accessible. Creative Commons Director of Global Learning Cable Green specifically recommends that CC NC ND works not be considered OER.

As a practical matter, lacking the ability to edit Udacity videos might not matter much. The Udacity course format is built around short video clips interspersed with quizzes, and what Udacity has published to YouTube are all those clips. Arguably, Udacity has gone farther in the direction of making these chunks of content independently available than the other big MOOCs. An instructor could easily create a Web page for students with a selection of videos pulled from a course simply by grabbing the YouTube embed code. That would be a remix of sorts, or at least a custom playlist.

But what about that "non-commercial" part? Would you be violating the terms of service by using the materials as part of your own course, without an explicit contract from Udacity granting you rights to do so? The Terms of Service language makes this sound risky: "Except as otherwise expressly permitted in these Terms of Use, you may not copy, sell, display, reproduce, publish, modify, create derivative works from, transfer, distribute or otherwise commercially exploit in any manner the Class Sites, Online Courses, or any Content."

Are you commercially exploiting Udacity content if you use it in a course for which you are collecting a paycheck? Does it matter whether you're doing so at a public or non-profit school versus a for-profit one?

Although I got clarification from Udacity on where to find its Terms of Service, I could not necessarily get a straight answer on what they mean. As best I can tell, this is being treated as a gray area, where a teacher or professor who did a little sampling in support of a particular homework assignment would be fine, but someone who created their own online course using a significant percentage of Udacity material would be in trouble.

Those aren't unreasonable terms for a startup trying to discover a business model, but neither are they OER.

Follow David F. Carr at @davidfcarr or Google+, along with @IWKEducation.

About the Author(s)

David F Carr

Editor, InformationWeek Government/Healthcare

David F. Carr oversees InformationWeek's coverage of government and healthcare IT. He previously led coverage of social business and education technologies and continues to contribute in those areas. He is the editor of Social Collaboration for Dummies (Wiley, Oct. 2013) and was the social business track chair for UBM's E2 conference in 2012 and 2013. He is a frequent speaker and panel moderator at industry events. David is a former Technology Editor of Baseline Magazine and Internet World magazine and has freelanced for publications including CIO Magazine, CIO Insight, and Defense Systems. He has also worked as a web consultant and is the author of several WordPress plugins, including Facebook Tab Manager and RSVPMaker. David works from a home office in Coral Springs, Florida. Contact him at [email protected]and follow him at @davidfcarr.

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