Let’s talk about control.

At a recent conference for the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), former president Cary Nelson talked about how faculty members’ academic freedom is “under increasing assault” by massive open online courses (MOOCs). He argued that professors need to wrest back control over copyright and intellectual property, or else “[b]eing a professor will no longer be a professional career or a professional identity.” Nelson linked the lack of protectiveness over “the things you create” as a professor as somehow a slippery slope to professors becoming part of a “service industry.”

Although Nelson appears to disparage the service industry with this particular comment, it’s interesting to note that according to the World Trade Organization, education is actually categorized under the service sector. The industry is generally one in which goods are not produced—one that earns revenue by providing intangible products and services. Even if this categorization scheme is inadequate, such intangibles are an apt way of characterizing the exchange that occurs as students look to professors for guidance on how to integrate and synthesize content. Indeed, at its best, is not teaching inherently a service—a vocation even for some? Nelson nevertheless fears that MOOCs will endanger professors’ individual and proprietary creations and lead to the commercialization of content, relegating educators to mere service providers.

It’s worth asking: What exactly is the intellectual property at stake here? How much of the content delivered in a classroom is original content? Especially if we’re thinking about this in the context of MOOCs, we have to remember that many of these massive online courses provide introductory and gateway course content. Whether it’s an introduction to poetry and poetics or calculus, it seems safe to assume that the intellectual property refers mostly to the professor’s style of teaching and less about the course content. In other words, what distinguishes a Princeton professor’s version of statistics from a Brown professor’s course? The material covered in the class is arguably less distinctive than how it is covered. Yet, this seems to be at the core of what Nelson and many other faculty members are referring to as they hold dearly to their academic freedom.

The rally cry for academic freedom was echoed in an even more recent position paper by a task force of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation. Driven by a “rather widespread concern” that “the core of [thei]r academic [teaching] mission…is being essentially developed by for-profit companies,” the provosts of a consortium of 13 research universities, mostly in the Big Ten Conference, are considering spending millions of dollars more in order to duplicate what has already been created by more nimble private-sector companies.

It’s difficult to imagine 13 different large research universities coming to a decision collaboratively about the kind of online framework they would like to use as their data infrastructure. At the same time, we have to wonder whether this consortium will, as Rick Hess and Andrew Kelly warn us about in their latest report, merely “retrofit” rather than re-engineer higher education. The two authors contend “that really game-changing ‘innovation’ is unlikely to be driven by well-intentioned chancellors at prestigious institutions. Why? Because they’re hindered by the success of their institutions, by established routines, cultures, and internal constituencies.” More importantly, by the time serious resources have been expended in order to build a platform comparable to other major online providers, these universities will be nowhere closer to revolutionizing the pedagogy that needs to accompany these courses in order to benefit student-learning outcomes.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the recorded lectures and materials from even someone as charismatic and well known as Harvard professor Michael Sandel simply serve at best as elements of a dynamic textbook. These resources do not stand alone well and necessitate the skills of professors to make the content come alive for students. We may not be able to categorize the advising, the guiding—even the handholding—as intellectual property, but this invaluable pedagogy is at the core of creating better student-learning experiences.

The advancements in higher education should not be about control over platforms or lectures (in fact, the further we can move away from lectures, the better). A proprietary technology platform will not save the day. Let’s focus instead on the intangibles—the unquantifiable—of this venerable service industry.


  • Michelle R. Weise, PhD
    Michelle R. Weise, PhD