Twofish's Blog

June 14, 2006

Improving MIT OCW licensing

Filed under: academia, massachusetts institute of technology — twofish @ 10:41 pm

One of my goals for the next few months is to encourage involved with MIT OCW to post course material without the restriction that the material be used only for non-commercial use. Reading Stephen Carson’s blogs at has made me more aware of why faculty want the non-commercial tag, and I do understand how it may be appropriate in some cases. But I’d like to offer the view that the NC tag may be inappropriate in other situations, and I’d like to make people more aware of the adverse consequences of the NC tag, and make is easy for them to have the option of releasing material without the NC tag should they decide to do so.

The make problem with the NC tag is that it makes mass collaboration (i.e. involving thousands of people) difficult, and this makes creating any sort of mathematical or scientific text difficult. To create a decent astrophysics text, you need contributions from hundreds of different experts, and you need pretty massive amounts of remixing.

And suppose I want to create a custom astrophysics text so that I can teach a course on astrophysics online, or I want to create a custom text on Chinese quantitative finance as marketing material for a consulting firm. That’s clearly a commercial use. Getting permission is probably feasible if there is one author to the text, but suppose there are thousands of people who have contributed to the text, any one of which can say no. That’s not feasible, and because of that I’m unwilling to contribute my expertise to become the thousand and first author.

As someone with domain expertise in some fields, it is very difficult for me to read through MIT OCW. The trouble is that I look at all of this wonderful stuff, that could be made slightly more wonderful with a tiny edit here, or a little more or little less explanation there. I’d like to make these tweaks and republish the material, but the nature of the license means that I can’t. It’s like being a kid in a toy store where you have all of these wonderful things that I can’t play with. So I tend to avoid the site. Instead, I spend a huge amount of time on Wikipedia and Wikitext, rewriting things that have already been written on OCW. That’s also time consuming and frustrating.

I have the following suggestions for OCW

1) Make a non NC-license an easy option for faculty to include. If someone doesn’t want to remove the NC clause, that’s fine. All I need is for *one* person somewhere in the world to remove the NC clause for text that I want to use, and that’s enough for me.

2) Broaden the idea of “courseware.” It may be that the faculty member is too uncomfortable for releasing their great magnum opus under a non-NC license, but surely they have some “junk in the attic” which they won’t object to give away. These could be old lecture notes, old syllabus, a half written textbook that the faculty member couldn’t find time to finish. Whatever. There is plenty of “junk in the attic” which the faculty might think is useless, but could be transformed into something wonderful.

3) Broaden the idea of “teacher.” It’s odd that we are talking exclusively about faculty creating courseware. Suppose I give a problem set. Student responses to that problem set are extremely valuable, since I can go through the problem set answers and see what mistakes are being made and then annotate the problem set with “common mistakes.”

One thing that I’ve found in grading papers is that students tend to make the same mistakes, and their mistakes are valuable courseware source material which I cannot provide. An expert in a topic is sometimes the worst person to author courseware since they do not see the problem from the view of someone who is not an expert.

So if all else fails, and we can’t convince any faculty to release their work under a shared license, can we at least convince the students to release their work product?

And that blows open the question of what does it mean to be a “teacher” and what does it mean to be a “student”? I got my physics Ph.D. and I know something about programming C++, but right now I’m a total “student” as far as learning about Levy processes, stochastic differential equations, and the politics of Wall Street quant jobs. I’d really enjoy a quantitative finance text that I could annotate and make notes for so that things are easier for the next group of people, but at that point who is an “author,” who is the “reader”, who is the “teacher”, who is the “student”?

The trouble with the current MIT OCW license is that it forces people into their traditional roles where there is an “author” of a text.


1 Comment »

  1. […] Joseph Wang has put up a few suggestions for changes to the MIT OCW license in a post on his blog. I’ve encouraged Joseph in e-mail to split this discussion into two questions: First, what is in fact the best license for open educational content, and second, how might MIT COW consider changing our license. I think it’s most productive to put off the second question until the first one has been given careful thought, as the logistical issues attendant to changing the MIT license mid-stream are secondary to issues raised in the first question. […]

    Pingback by OpenFiction [ Blog ] » More discussion of open sharing licenses — June 15, 2006 @ 7:46 pm

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