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DENVER — MOOCs are on the tip of everyone’s tongue here at the annual Educause meeting, presumably because of their scale and the technologies their recent champions have built to support that scale.

But in his opening keynote, Clay Shirky, an author and assistant professor at New York University, said the most provocative aspect of MOOCs is not their massiveness; it is their openness.

Or, in some cases, their lack thereof. Shirky’s framing of MOOCs as a phenomenon of the open educational resources (OER) movement -- rather than of the online education or instructional technology movements -- comes shortly after Coursera struck a content licensing deal with Antioch University that drew a line on the extent to which the company would allow outsiders to use its resources without paying to do so.

When Derek Bruff, the director of Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching, learned of the Antioch licensing deal, he wrote on Twitter: “What I don't see… is why Antioch would pay Coursera to use their open courses. What am I missing?”

The missing piece is a caveat in Coursera’s terms of service that prohibits the use of Coursera’s MOOCs for anything but informal education.

“You may not take any Online Course offered by Coursera,” stipulate the terms, “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.”

The other major Silicon Valley MOOC host, Udacity, includes a thorough set of caveats in its own terms of service. Users "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," the company warns. "You may not reverse-engineer, decompile, disassemble or otherwise access the source code for any software that may be used to operate the Online Courses."

The nonprofit MOOC provider, edX, has made "openness" a major part of its PR message, often to position itself as the more collaborative and less money-oriented player in the market. But edX's terms of service also place limits on the extent to which outsiders can avail themselves of edX content.

"Unless otherwise expressly stated on the Site, the texts, exams, video, images and other instructional materials provided with the courses offered on this Site are for your personal use in connection with those courses only," read the site's legal notice.

The document assures that edX's two institutional founders, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, "aim to make much of the edX course content available under more open license terms that will help create a vibrant ecosystem of contributors and further edX's goal of making education accessible and affordable to the world." However, "Certain reference documents, digital textbooks, articles and other information on the Site are used with the permission of third parties, and use of that information is subject to certain rules and conditions… All rights in the Site and its content, if not expressly granted, are reserved."

So are MOOCs, and the content packaged therein, OER? Yes? No? Sometimes?

It turns out that there is a lack of understanding among top academic officials about OER in general. A new study from the Babson Survey Research Group, based on 2011 data and released here on Wednesday, found that 51 percent of chief academic officers were “aware” of OER in any meaningful sense of the word. 

 “We then probed to see what it is they’re talking about,” said Jeffrey Seaman, the co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group, in a session convened around the study by its corporate sponsor, Pearson, which this week made its first appeal to proponents of OER by unveiling a discovery service for "open" content.

“What we find is that their answers are all over the map,” said Seaman. One of the most common definitions volunteered by the participating academic officers in an open-ended survey question was that “open” simply means “free.”

And what about “open” as it refers to intellectual property and the licensing, re-purposing, or re-mixing of someone else’s materials? “Not mentioned,” said Seaman. “Not on the mindset at all of these chief academic officers. The idea of who did it, how I can use it, what the permissions are for use, can I re-purpose it -- never appeared in any of the examples that they described.“

“That doesn’t mean that none of them have it or would understand it,” he continued. “But not a single one of the chief academic officers, in their responses to us, mentioned anything about the licensing issues.”

In any case, the same pool of chief academic officers was largely confident that OER had the potential to save their institutions money -- 65 percent said it could. Nearly 60 percent percent said they perceived OER as potentially “valuable” to their campuses, whether monetarily or otherwise. And fewer than 10 percent had any concerns that OER would be “accepted” by faculty as an alternative to traditional course materials.

That sort of faith is unusual for a relatively new type of academic resource, especially one with such an ambiguous definition, said Seaman. The Babson group’s other studies have suggested that still only 32 percent of chief academic officers believe their faculty will accept online courses.  

“The level of animosity, the level of distrust that we need to overcome is very, very low,” he said.

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