#28: Slicing the Creative Pie (Summer Shorts)

Welcome to Wired Ivy — in which Dan share a Summer Shorts story about how universities and faculty are slicing the creative pie.


It’s the end of a hot summer. The birds are in the orchard trying to get the cherries before I do, and I am inside putting the finishing touches on my fall courses. I have a couple of new lessons to write and a new case study to narrate. Maybe some of you are recording lectures right now, or maybe you’re finalizing a whole new syllabus and curating new resources. Then there is the looming work of building the course in the learning management system – the LMS.

Faculty put a lot of work into creating original lessons and courses that target specific learning outcomes to specific audiences. But all the energy put into creative, innovative teaching leaves open a very big question: who owns the original educational resources uploaded on the schools’ computers?

Faculty put a lot of work into creating original lessons and courses but who owns the original educational resources we upload to our schools’ computers. #OnlineLearning #HigherEd #VirtualClassroom


U.S. copyright law generally includes a work-for-hire doctrine. That means if you do work as a part of your salaried job, the employer owns the rights to that work. If it is creative work, the employer owns the intellectual property — unless there is some other contract in place.

At universities and colleges there are categories of intellectual property that have long been customarily exempted. These include published research, creative artistic work, and publications and recordings of original educational resources — textbooks are the classic example here.

Historically, the faculty was considered a partner in the nonprofit educational mission of the school and shared governance with it. They were expected to be creative, and retained control and disseminated their own creative works. The recognition then reflected onto the reputation of the institution as a benefit. This pattern of copyright and ownership, which was more custom than contract, served both parties very well for decades.

The long-standing pattern of copyright and ownership in higher ed, which was always more custom than contract, has served institutions and faculty well, but it’s being upended by digital technology. #OnlineLearning #HigherEd #VirtualClassroom


Technology has a way of disrupting business as usual. There was a time when all pies were baked individually in batch ovens with local fruits for local consumption. But then came new technology such as transportation for exotic ingredients, like cinnamon, and conveyor ovens that allowed for continuous baking. The chief bakers devised recipes to take advantage of the new ingredients and methods. The bakeries then delivered pies far and wide.

Universities and their faculties, who not only have operated with long standing customs but also take pride in their traditions, find they, too, are being upended by digital technology. The culture and custom of the university is now bumping against the culture and power of the Internet.

Since remote learning is online today, it is fundamentally connected to technology. Those of us in online education think about the impacts of technology every day. Still, hybrid and even fully in-person classes using digital technology will have the same issues.

There is an irony here, because the Internet that facilitates educators in finding and posting quality content, is the same technology that makes it easy for their own work to be copied and disseminated, often without their permission.


Just what about technology makes the intellectual property issue of educational resources so urgent?

For one, the Internet changes the commercial value for educational resources. Asynchronous, remote courses can be scaled to thousands of learners quickly, without the constraints of room space, and often with very efficient use of instructional labor. And online programs across the country are competing directly against each other for faculty and students in the frictionless marketplace of the Internet. 

Also, controlling educational resources is much harder now. Duplication of digital resources is easy to do and difficult to trace. An entire course on your school’s LMS can be copied in 5 seconds by anyone with an administrative permission, without the knowledge of the creative educator.

Duplication of digital resources is easy to do and difficult to trace. Digitally recorded lectures are easily archived. They could be deployed long after the professor has left the institution, or even died. #OnlineLearning #HigherEd #VirtualClassroom

Furthermore, lectures recorded digitally as part of a professor’s teaching library are easily archived. They could be deployed long after the professor has stopped working at that institution or even after they have died.


There are two, really — a school, and a faculty member… with numerous supporting characters such as program directors, IP and technology transfer officers, instructional designers, external online education consultants, LMS providers, and even students.

I admit, my reflexive reaction to this conflict comes from my own perspective as an educator. Usually, I write my entire course and curate all the outside resources. I also design my course websites and build them out fully in the LMS. Others may work as a team of educators developing a single course. Still others may design a course closely around a publisher’s textbook, and instructional designers might play an important role, particularly in online course development.

There are myriad ways that courses are created and uploaded to a school’s LMS. But as academics, we are acculturated to care about intellectual property. To the degree that faculty create original content, they will have an interest in being able to control that work.  On the other hand, it would seem that universities and colleges have all the cards legally, even if practically a reliance on shared governance and a shared mission undermines that.

As nonprofits, schools have an educational mission, which drives policy. However we all know that they need to make money and, recognizing the efficiency of technology, see online programs as a good way to do that.

Schools are concerned about continuity, scalability, quality, learning outcomes, and revenue.  Schools want to ensure courses have consistency when they are taught by multiple instructors or when an instructor is replaced. They also want to be able to scale rapidly by adding instructors to an existing course. Having standard syllabi is useful for this.

For strategic reasons, a school might want to prevent an instructor from offering the same course at a competitor institution. Remember, in an online world both learners and educators are not limited by geography.

Also, many schools directly support the development of new courses by supplying resources, such as development stipends, course release time, educational design support, or technology support. This investment implies an institutional interest in the educational resources beyond just faculty development.


What is the denouement in this tale? Well, there isn’t one yet. This is another example of how technology is disrupting and transforming a traditional creative enterprise to an end that is not yet written.

This issue of control and access to course content is imminently important to online education and broadly important to all higher education in the 21st century.

At Wired Ivy we are working on upcoming episodes to unpack these issues. We’ve read many Intellectual Property policies. Some schools are articulating a shared copyright with shared property rights, but there’s no clear resolution yet, no prevailing custom that’s emerged…maybe because the issues are still unfolding.

Is this creative pie big enough that we are all going to get a share? This is where you come in. Does your school have an Intellectual Property policy that covers original educational resources? Please send us a copy or link if it does… or send us your story on this narrative!

An important note here: we realize our experience is in the United States, but we’d love to hear from our global listeners about their situations as well. And, we are also going to be asking a series of 1-question polls to develop  out the future episodes. Please join the Wired Ivy group on LinkedIn to participate.


As always, send us your questions, comments, and suggestions. You can leave a voice As always, you can leave a voice message at speakpipe.com/wiredivy, or help Wired Ivy by subscribing, rating, and reviewing us on your favorite podcast apps, and by sharing this Summer Short with your friends.


dan marcucci in chinaDaniel J. Marcucci advocates for sustaining a livable, rich biosphere—because the alternative is scary. He teaches Sustainability Systems, Coastal and Marine Systems, and Urban Water Systems courses and leads Global Study trips. Dr. Marcucci has two decades’ experience in higher education as an environmental educator, the last several years focusing on creating supportive asynchronous online learning communities. He has published in numerous environmental planning journals. He also has extensive experience as a regional and environmental planner. His current research explores individual landscapes and landscape as an integrative and holistic concept. Dan is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.

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