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The MOOC revolution is here and college faculty are starting to get very nervous. At the end of May, a group of 58 Harvard faculty sent a letter to the university administration requesting the creation of a committee to oversee “ethical issues” related to edX, which provides MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) from both Harvard and MIT to students around the world.

The letter doesn’t mention what those ethical issues are, but surely one is a question that was raised by the American Association of University Professors recently.

At the opening address of the AAUP’s annual meeting, the president, Cary Nelson, brought up the question of who owns the intellectual property of a MOOC. Is it the professor or the university?

Here’s the description from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

"If we lose the battle over intellectual property, it's over," Mr. Nelson warned. "Being a professor will no longer be a professional career or a professional identity," and faculty members will instead essentially find themselves working in "a service industry," he said.

The AAUP is urging its members to get universities to write protections for faculty intellectual property into their MOOC agreements. Interestingly, some academic organizations have taken issue with the AAUP on this.

The draft report on university-industry relationships that the AAUP released last year drew criticism from groups such as the Association of American Universities and the Association of University Technology Managers, which argued that the AAUP was ignoring the ownership stake that higher-education institutions derive from financially supporting scholars' work.

What’s interesting here is not simply the idea that colleges that support a scholars’ work have some claim on their scholarship—this is most obviously true in the case of patents developed on campus. But Nelson’s speech also raises the question of exactly who should be worried by the development of MOOCs.

It is hard to imagine that having thousands of students instead of dozens or hundreds per semester is going to be bad for the good professors. They will get more exposure. They will be building their own brand. The entrepreneurial types have been doing very well with the MOOC model. (In addition, one supposes this will also be good for students—kids from no-name community colleges now have access to the lectures of Harvard and MIT professors.)

The response of Harvard’s dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to the letter is also worth noting. “HarvardX is a university initiative that supports faculty innovation in online and blended models of teaching. . . . Ultimately, HarvardX consists of the faculty members -- from FAS and across the university -- who have chosen to undertake these innovative efforts.”

In other words, no one is being forced onto the MOOC track. But those who are good enough to succeed at it will not be part of any “service industry.” Rather they will be highly valued by their universities.

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