Stanford University professor Daphne Koller believes that the next Albert Einstein may be sitting in an African village, without access to college classrooms. Koller also believes that education is a fundamental human right. So she and other pioneering pedagogues are taking university courses into global classrooms online.
Last April, Koller cofounded a free online site called Coursera.org, which offers 213 courses from 33 top universities. At press time it was already reaching more than 2.3 million enrollees (and was growing by about 70,000 per week).
Course offerings run the gamut from biology to computer science, health to economics, education to film. Pupils can learn how to build an information risk management toolkit with professor Barbara Endicott-Popovsky of the University of Washington; explore the galaxies with cosmologist S. George Djorgovski of the California Institute of Technology; or search for extraterrestrial life with astrobiologist Charles Cockell of the University of Edinburgh.
And Coursera isn't alone. There are other sites offering college courses, such as Udacity, cofounded by a former Stanford professor who says he used to teach 200 students per class and now aspires to teach 200,000; and edX, which was formed by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and now has four more universities on board. These three offer so-called massive open online courses, or MOOCs. Some individual schools offer regular courses with more limited enrollment.
With all those classes go a host of legal challenges. Some of these already exist in traditional education, such as protecting the intellectual property rights in course materials. But other legal issues relate to new technology and the Web. For example: How do you navigate regulatory requirements that differ from state to state and country to country? And how does your legal team keep up with legal challenges that accompany ever-changing technology and mushrooming online enrollment?
Koller, a computer science expert, admits that the law is not her forte. But she already had a brush with it last October, when Minnesota's Office of Higher Education said that Coursera.org did not have permission to teach in that state. "Minnesota's regulation was written 15 or 20 years ago to protect residents from low-quality, high-cost providers and predatory practices," Koller explains. "The problem was the fact that it was applied to free online courses from top universities." A huge public backlash convinced Minnesota officials to back down and allow Coursera to continue its offerings in that state.
Her other legal issues have been more routine. She uses different outside counsel to handle different aspects. She used one to create the company last April, uses another for IP, and uses still others to negotiate agreements and licensing deals with university partners.
The legal world can grow even more complicated when the website charges a fee and offers course credit. Ian Pilarczyk, who directs Boston University School of Law's international business law program online, knows firsthand. From the outset of developing online programs, it's imperative to create clear IP policies, he advises: "Intellectual property is one of the thorniest issues with which universities have to contend."
Pilarczyk explains some of the complications. Under some models the instructor retains ownership of the syllabus and course materials that she has created, just as in traditional teaching. But sometimes the university may reuse or revamp materials or use new instructors. In those cases, Pilarczyk notes, the school may hold a license, or instructors will grant it long-term or permanent rights. "I think that generally faculty are paid for both course development as well as teaching," he adds.
The IP questions are "incredibly complicated," agrees Richard Matasar, a vice president at New York University who oversees its online projects. Exactly who owns the material for NYU's hundreds of course offerings varies, he says. And material obtained elsewhere requires the university "to go through classic patent and copyright deals."