The Future of Online Learning

Ownership and Copyright

Issues of copyright and ownership already play a major role in discussions of online learning. Most such discussion centres around the question of who owns course content. In the future, this question will not make sense because a course will not be seen as an individual entity which can be owned, but rather, a collection of entities, each of which can be owned.

This is in fact not so different from the system in place today. In a traditional course offering, various resources - such as textbooks, videos or CD-ROMs - are employed. Copyright for each of these individual entities is owned, not by the course instructor, but rather, by the publisher or author of the entity in question. Where material is reproduced, this reproduction is performed under license, either explicitly, as in the case of CanCopy, or implicitly, under the provisions of fair use.

The gray area will be in the case of materials which in the past were produced by instructors solely for their own classes, which in the new system, may be used by many other classes. For example, if a professor produces a set of notes on fallacies for his logic class, and this set of notes is purchased by another institution, the question arises: who gets paid, the professor, or his home institution.

This will remain a bone of contention for a very short time. The production of educational materials, now a relatively simple project involving a mostly rudimentary understanding of technology, will evolve into a highly technical discipline. Just as instructors do not typically create their own movies or videos to show in class, because they are too complex to produce on an as needed basis, so also instructors will not typically create educational resources for their classes.

Specialized Resources will be offered by large and small companies, targeting particular educational niches. For example, one company may offer a resource centred around the poem The Road Not Taken. This resource would include audio readings of the poem, video background information, multimedia analytical tools, discussion and criticism, and additional resources.

The task of the online instructor will be to review the material, link to it from the instructional module, and assign students particular tasks related to the resource. While many such modules will be offered for free to educational institutions, by government, charities or corporations, others will be offered on a fee-for-use basis. Because these resources are playing for a global audience, the fee-for-use will be very reasonable.

A blossoming of such sites has already occurred on the internet. What we will see in the future is an entrenching of a few authoritative sites in particular subject areas. Because these sites will be expensive to maintain and create, they will eventually seek funding, either from government, from advertising, from the sale of information (for example, user demographics to advertisers), or by direct charge.

Online services will be offered by subject matter experts independently of any given institution. For example, leading authorities on Descartes' Meditations will provide an online resource, and in addition be available for consulting and discussion. It will be common for instructors to expect students to consult with online experts in any of a myriad of fields while preparing for assignments or doing background research.

Some online communities are already adopting this approach. A site called The Mining Company hires 'guides' to provide information and links in specific subject areas. At a site called Suite101, the same function is performed by 'contributing editors'. Both sites take a magazine-like approach to these subject areas, however, as technology and their understanding evolves, these sites will become more service oriented and less display oriented.

Schools will not be their only customers. Government and business often require research in particular subject areas. People also access such resources out of curiosity or interest. Most likely a multi-tiered pricing strategy will evolve, with varying levels of service. Agencies wishing a full consulting service, including customized research, will pay a much higher rate than the casual browser (who in most cases will probably pay nothing). Schools will fall into the mid range.

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Copyright 2004 Stephen Downes
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.