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What are the barriers to open access teaching tools?

29 October, 2008

I just came from a presentation at Macquarie University on using multimedia presentations to inspire students and facilitate learning. But I came away from the lecture thinking about how people hoard their teaching tools (and how universities hoard their lecturers’ teaching tools), and wondering what to think about that.

The lecture was by a visiting lecturer from the Law Faculty at the Queensland University of Technology, Professor Des Butler. Butler started out discussing three key sources to illustrate his points about the changing face of learning and student engagement. First, some figures from Laird 1985 saying that knowledge is 75% seeing, 13% hearing, and 12 % other senses. Then he mentioned what he referred to as Mayer’s Multimedia Principle: that people learn better from words and pictures than words alone. Finally, he repeated some of Mike Wesch’s conclusions from “A vision of students today.” Except I think I heard him say “Matt” Wesch (but maybe that’s just how I hear Australian accents), and I was kind of disappointed that nobody mentioned that Wesch was an anthropologist.  Still, it made me feel proud of our tribe.

Butler went on to show some of the really nifty interactive, multimedia tools he’d developed for his students that include podcasts, Blackboard-based web modules with short films embedded, web-based quizzes that produce automatic (but not individually tailored) feedback, and “machinima,” or movies he had scripted and then “acted out” in Second Life. He showed us how over the course of a decade he’d shifted from expensive, big-budget film production to being able to do things very cheaply using open source or inexpensive software tools, such as, MovieMaker, and Audacity. The things he’d done really were clever, imaginative, and cool, and I was definitely inspired.

I wish I could just show you the things he showed us, because it would take ages for me to describe his “Gondwana Airlines” tool, or “The Merlin Affair.” But I can’t show you them, because they’re not available unless you’re one of his students.

That’s what left me feeling ambivalent. Someone asked him about copyright and if he’d commercialized the things he’d made and he said no, they were just for his students. So I asked him if he’d considered licensing them via a Creative Commons noncommercial license so that others could see, use, or even build on or adapt what he’d done. He had a short answer for me: “No.” I asked why not, and he basically said that he had other things to do, including working on a new project to do with ethics.

I guess someone in the audience thought I was harassing the visiting lecturer, because she turned to me and said that it wasn’t just up to him; at Macquarie and anywhere else, the university owned the slides produced by its lecturers, so they were already owned and couldn’t just be made freely available. She seemed to think that what I was suggesting was absolutely preposterous!

I’m out of my element here. I don’t know much about copyright in Australian legal institutions, and I was surprised to hear that the university owns whatever visual aids its lecturers produce. I guess I can understand why that happens. Universities pay their lecturers to teach, and they rely on student enrollments to pay for that, so maybe they don’t want to make all the cool teaching tools their lecturers developed freely available to the entire world. They want to recoup their investment.

On the other hand, I can think of some good reasons for making freely available at least some of the cool teaching tools their lecturers develop. These can serve as a kind of advertisement for the university, something that contributes to the university brand. When people watch the free online lectures that MIT makes available, for example, they don’t think to themselves, “Mwa ha ha ha ha, I just got a free lecture from MIT, and now I’ll never have to give them my money!” They think, “Wow, MIT is really cool. They don’t just have some of the best researchers in the world, they also have some of the best teachers.”

I asked the question because I am working on my own online teaching tool, a web-based ethics teaching module, funded by a Learning and Teaching Fellowship from Macquarie. I plan on licensing it with a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike license. In other words, others may download, redistribute, remix, tweak, and build upon the work non-commercially, as long as they credit the original authors and license their new creations under the identical terms, i.e. all derivative work must also be non-commercial in nature. I’m really excited about that, and I should say that everyone I’ve talked to at Macquarie is excited about it, too. I can’t name a single person who has said, “Oh, you should just limit it to Macquarie use!” or “Oh, Macquarie should charge a fee for people to use that!” Who knows, maybe I’ve just been talking to the wrong people and somewhere down the line, some powers that be will want to clamp down on this and hoard it.

I don’t think so, though. And I really hope not, not just because I am a fan of open access, but also because it would sink the project. Here’s why: the fact that I’m creating open access teaching materials has meant that lots of people have willingly shared their own materials with me for free, and I doubt that they would have if I’d planned on commercially developing my web module or restricting it for Macquarie use only. Paul Mason, one of the graduate students in our department, is working on this project with me, and we’ve written to people all over the world asking for photos to illustrate the web module, and I’ve been astonished at how generous people like Philip Zimbardo, Sudhir Venkatesh, and many others have been in sharing materials with us.

When this ethics module is up and running, hopefully by the end of the year, I’ll blog about it more extensively!

–L.L. Wynn

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 29 October, 2008 10:58 pm

    It is not as simple as saying that any University “owns” the slides or lectures etc of its faculty. In the US at most institutions, including mine, in my contract it states that faculty’s intellectual property is vested with the University. This, however, is usually aimed at those scholars in the sciences who may, develop a patentable drug or something. It is not out of the realm of possibility that a Uni would have an interest in a professor’s slides and other teaching tools, but this does not mean they “own” it nor does it mean that the scholar in question can not use a CC license and put it up on a blog etc. I have all my presentations up on my blog and I have separate class blogs that all of my lecture slides are on. In addition when my collaborators and I created Mukurtu [ – an indigenous archive tool] I went to my Uni’s Intellectual Property office and negotiated that we use a GPL {] so that it could be available to anyone (specifically indigenous communities) to use and reuse and build on as a archive tool and teaching tool.

    There are options out there for the kinds of material you describe and it sounds like one of the problems is the general confusion over what types of access and licensing exist and in this case people seem to be defaulting to a skewed notion of ownership and “rights.”

  2. 30 October, 2008 8:32 am

    Hey thanks for that info, Kim, and for telling us about Mukurtu. That’s so awesome that you put up all your presentations and lecture slides on your blog. You are officially CM’s model for open access teaching tools.

    Does anyway know about the specific Australia context to “ownership” or rights over the things developed by faculty?

  3. 4 November, 2008 7:58 am

    I just got this message from Tom Hanson at

    “Michael Wesch of Kansas State gained instantaneous fame with his viral
    video, “A Vision of Students Today.” Recently the associate professor
    offered his suggestions for teachers charged with educating this current
    generation of students.

    “At we featured Wesch’s follow-up and gave our assessment
    of his suggestions. The post may be found at:

    “If you think the article would be of interest to your readers we would be
    grateful if you would share it with them. In addition, we welcome your
    feedback on our treatment of this important topic.”

    Tom Hanson

  4. Tara permalink
    30 January, 2009 6:30 am

    When it comes to signing your IP rights away to something while you are employed by a University, it’s best to talk with someone in the IP office.

    Our university has an ‘outside activy’ reporting requirement and if you have to waive your IP rights — even on something you are doing outside of your faculty work — you have to get it approved by the IP office.

    I’m sure the process and the amount of rights a university or college has over their faculty’s property changes not only by country and state, but individual institutions as well.


  1. Why Learning Objects Need to be Open Access

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