In this series of posts to be published jointly on our fusion and technology law update blogs, partner Greg Gibson and colleagues from our Technology Team explore some of the legal issues surrounding the rapid growth of MOOCs (massive open online courses).

The New York Times famously branded 2012 “The Year of the MOOC”, following the launch of edX, by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the rapid growth of other online course providers, such as Coursera and Udacity.

Despite the hype, distance learning is, of course, nothing new.  Students have learnt by the traditional “correspondence course” for centuries and the UK’s Open University has long been a pioneer of distance learning techniques.  Distance learning can also take many forms, as witnessed by the British Council’s innovative collaboration with Plan Ceibal for the remote teaching via videoconference of up to 4,800 English classes per week (http://www.britishcouncil.org/partner/track-record/ceibal-en-ingles).  What makes MOOCs different, and potentially disruptive for the traditional education model, is their sheer scale and reach and ability, if managed properly, to offer interactive learning opportunities to students “any place,any time”.

MOOCs really leapt to people’s attention here in the UK with the launch last year of FutureLearn, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Open University, offering MOOCs from over 20 top universities in the UK, including the University of Birmingham, King’s College London and the University of East Anglia, and some of the UK’s leading cultural institutions, such as the British Library, the British Museum and the British Council. 

MOOCs, however, have not been universally well received.  Most are free of charge and do not offer any educational credit or accreditation, leading some to question whether they can ever really become part of mainstream education.  The real challenge for MOOCs is in the name, in that the courses are both “massive” and “open”.  This raises concerns about the ability of some of the students who enrol and the ability of institutions to reach out and effectively connect with such a large and disparate student base.  Course completion rates have been disappointing and there is disillusionment amongst some students about the quality of the learning experience.

These criticisms are not necessarily fair, as any one who enrols on a MOOC is likely to be offered an interesting range of video, audio and interactive learning, increasingly using some of the best techniques of gamification and social networking.  However, the challenge for institutions remains keeping students engaged right from the time of enrolment to course completion.  One solution to the challenge is the introduction of MOOC’s little brother, the SPOC (the small private online course).  By restricting numbers of students on a course, institutions are able to manage student interaction more effectively and create a more intimate learning experience.

In this series of blog posts, we explore some of the issues that institutions considering offering MOOCs need to address.  These include:

  • the ownership and licensing of course content;
  • the relationship between the course provider and the technology platform used to deliver the course;
  • data protection and data security;
  • the relationship with learners; and
  • the sharing and re-use of the learner’s own content.

Avid readers of the Official Journal will have seen that FutureLearn is currently seeking providers to manage and run examinations associated with FutureLearn courses around the world.  This may well be the next step in moving MOOCs from an elaborate “shop window” for institutions to a genuine part of mainstream education.  That is why we are predicting that 2014 will be the year when the MOOC comes of age.