Free this Book: Open Access Humanities for the MOOCs

Steal-This-Book-posterI’ve been thinking about how the movement for Open Access to humanities & social-science work might intersect usefully with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).

At least a few specific directions occur to me as worth exploring with any of these organizations (key MOOC players include Coursera, Udacity, Khan Academy, Harvard/MIT-led EdX, Udemy, Futurelearn in UK and Stanford-run platforms Class2Go and VentureLab).

  1. Use Open Access course materials for MOOCs
  2. Connect new scholarly peer-review models to MOOC peer evaluation

1) Use Open Access course materials for MOOCs

The MOOCs are starting to expand beyond their current focus on engineering topics, quite possibly towards humanities and social-science areas whose courses typically involve much more and more varied published materials such as scholarly essays, articles, & books. There’s likely to be a huge market there if lower-level classes in these areas start to be offered as MOOCs with transferable accreditation, and get unbundled from the much higher per-credit-cost, traditional higher-ed.

A University offering a course via one of the MOOC platforms usually enrolls students beyond its regular student base. This means it can’t rely on students being able to access a common set of licensed content, which is typically the case for regularly enrolled students with access to the university library system. Also, in moving to MOOCs, the university is moving towards a different and cheaper cost structure than that which has supported those expensive, library-negotiated content site licenses and acquisitions (into the millions of dollars per year on most  campuses).

Various players could potentially step up to address this problem: e.g.

  1. Universities (or their library systems) could spearhead negotiation of new, more accommodating and low-cost content licenses to cover their MOOC classes;  or
  2. Rights-clearance orgs like Copyright Clearance Center or internationally, IPRO could develop practices to clear all rights and pay licensing costs to rights holders from either universities or MOOC providers, or conceivably even serving individual course-takers; or
  3. New-model access providers such as Labtiva’s ReadCube, or DeepDyve, which offer retail-level, individual-facing access to research articles on a view-only or “rental” basis.


However the first two are incumbent orgs heavily tied to existing processes, all are tied to the paywalled-access regime and its cost structures, and they only cover certain materials. It would simplify things greatly for MOOC classes to use Open Access materials wherever possible; and the new low-cost MOOC economics might give that approach more comparative advantage than in legacy Higher Ed. Efficient discovery of Open Access alternatives might particularly address the cost hurdle of developing new courses (which I see estimated at $50k – $500k and up).

MOOCs, by themselves, might also suggest different requirements that open up new possibilities for Open Access solutions. For example, for a MOOC’s purposes, a preprint or author’s final version available on Open Access terms in an institutional repository (e.g. “Green OA“) may be a perfectly acceptable alternative to a “published” “version of record,” which some scholarly contexts might prefer, but which is available only with expensive article fees.

Mass-collaboratively-written, Open Access synopses or précis of key books/articles might be preferable to the originals, even aside from the cost issue. Great thinkers in the humanities and social sciences aren’t necessarily great communicators of their ideas, and a given class might not be particularly concerned with the exact language of their expression, or may (usually does) want a briefer treatment.

Finally, it’s possible that many important books or articles might, via the new MOOC economics, become viable candidates to crowd-fund for public-domain  release, for example through the model. Free This Book!


2. Connect new scholarly peer-review models to MOOC peer evaluation

This is a more speculative direction I’m just thinking though, but it’s occurred to me there’s a striking resemblance between these current trends:

  1. Collaborative & open scholarly writing, (e.g. MediaCommons Press, or the idea of using Github for open authorship of scientific papers suggested by Marcio von Muhlen (et al?)),
  2. “Post-publication” peer review, i.e. let scholarship be made openly available, let various parties judge its merit after release, rather than peer review as access gatekeeping. For example, with Public Library of Science’s PLOS ONE “megajournal.”
  3. Peer evaluation, i.e. class participants grading each other. (or more generally, peeragogy, peer-to-peer education, in Howard Rheingold’s term). Rationales for this include both the pedagogical (“students write better for their peers than for a teacher”) and, obviously, the economic — how to efficiently scale up non-machine-gradeable evaluation for millions of MOOC students.

This makes me wonder if scholarly repositories, and scholarly Open Review / Open Access publishing, may have evolved useful models and tools employable for large-scale MOOC collaborative work and evaluation.

For example, imagine if a university, or MOOC platform, had all students submit all work via an open repository, perhaps like the Github platform used to host projects using open-source software management system Git, or like arXiv, the repository that hosts preprints of most papers in physics and some others fields. (or like the HumarXiv, the mythical humanities equivalent, which I hereby summon into existence by proposing).

Entry into this repository might accomplish a number of general-purpose things of value to many potential other services built on top. For example, timestamping, versioning, stable permanent archiving, assignment of a DOI or other stable identifier, notifications, and indexing.

Built on top might be many services such as collaborative work environments, grading, duplicate & plagiarism detection, copyright claims handling, machine-learning processes doing personalized evaluation or recommendations or “quantified self”-type productivity feedback, etc. Workflows such as grading, peer evaluation, or journal-style manuscript editing and peer review could be run on top as well. This journal case is the “overlay journal” model proposed at least as far back as Van de Sompel, et al (2004), and currently being implemented in the much-publicized case of Timothy Gowers’ Episciences mathematics journal.

I’m intrigued by the idea of such tools, practices, and repositories potentially  bridging from “student-level” work (K-12, lifelong learner, continuing education, college student), to scholarly to professional, even trade and popular “publishing.” It might facilitate diverse curatorial / evaluative practices that could draw on a range of materials from many contributors. Perhaps that might help talent be recognized and encouraged wherever it arises, and create better pathways to higher levels of recognition, attainment and career advancement, with people less enclosed by format, system, status, or disciplinary ghettos.  Perhaps leading towards a society that would be, in Ivan Ilich‘s terms, better educated and less schooled.


Ann M.
Ann M.

Well articulated and interesting ideas.  Thanks!

Bill Trippe
Bill Trippe

Very thoughtful ideas about an important and growing topic. Many thanks!