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New MOOC Teaches Educators and Librarians About Copyright
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Posted On August 26, 2014


For many of us in the information industry, copyright is the bane of our existence. We need more than a passing familiarity with key intellectual property and copyright issues, yet the environment is incredibly complex. And while copyright issues plague libraries and the teaching profession, most of us without formal legal training and degrees don’t feel adequately prepared or comfortable responding to questions we face during the normal course of business. So the announcement that a team of three well-respected librarian-lawyers would be teaching a massive open online course (MOOC) through Coursera about copyright was greeted with a great deal of excitement from within the library community. Fortunately, the free course did not disappoint.

Copyright for Educators & Librarians was led by a team of instructors: Kevin Smith, director of copyright and scholarly communication at Duke University Libraries; Lisa A. Macklin, director of the Scholarly Communications Office at Emory University’s Robert W. Woodruff Library; and Anne Gilliland, scholarly communications officer at the University of North Carolina­–Chapel Hill Libraries. All three instructors began their careers as librarians but have professional degrees in both library/information science and law, which gives them particularly valuable insights into the kinds of copyright questions that arise in libraries and educational environments.

Course Content

According to the course page, the instructors’ goal was to “begin to demystify the law and help educators and librarians do their jobs more effectively.” In less formal terms, the team set out to turn participants into “copyright mavens.” The course was designed around four units. Week 1 provided a framework for thinking about copyright and offered a quick overview of key milestones in copyright law. Week 2 discussed authorship and rights. Week 3 focused on specific exceptions for teachers and librarians. Week 4 delved into fair use. Most weeks included an hour or two of short, lecture-style videos. The content of the videos was quite informative, although instructors appeared to have varying levels of comfort being on camera.

Even so, the knowledge they conveyed via the lectures was spot-on in terms of subject matter for its target audience—the content in Weeks 2 and 3 was outstanding and covered issues that are central to copyright in a teaching environment. The instructors did a solid job of taking complicated topics such as the Technology, Education, and Copyright Harmonization (TEACH) Act, highlighting the key sections, and drilling down to the issues librarians and educators should consider. Likewise, the team explained Creative Commons (CC) licenses, and it also went through various ways in which authors/creators can apply CC licenses to their works and how the public can use the licenses. One particularly helpful tool the instructors highlighted was Flickr’s collection of CC images.

Other questions covered within the course included the following:

  • Who owns the copyright for materials that teachers create?
  • Do students own the copyright for their work?
  • How can you determine if fair use can be applied?
  • Can ideas be copyrighted?
  • What materials are included in the public domain?
  • According to copyright law, can movies be shown in class?
  • What’s covered in classroom exemptions?
  • When should you cite, and when should you get permission?

Although copyright law is complicated and confusing, the instructors did an excellent job of distilling the key questions from the framework that they presented during Week 1, which they referred to throughout the course. The framework was developed as a resource for librarians and educators to use as a starting point for analyzing common copyright issues and is something participants should be able to use as a resource in the future.  

Assessments and Study Groups

The quizzes presented to students at the end of the first three units also contained valuable information. Existing “copyright mavens” might be interested in jumping into the course, testing their knowledge on the quizzes, and filling in gaps by watching the relevant videos. Most quiz questions involved scenarios commonly experienced in academic settings; the explanations to the quiz questions are a quick way to learn more about specific issues without viewing the videos.

As is common with MOOCs, several groups of students formed their own study groups, using discussion forums as a springboard for online or face-to-face connections. The K–12 librarians’ group was particularly active and has plans to continue as a Facebook group.

Overall, the course was successful, particularly for librarians, educators, researchers, and students in college or university environments. The information shared was practical and related to questions and issues commonly encountered in academic libraries. Additional topics covered included:

  • Issues with copyright related to course reserves
  • Copyright issues in printed course packs versus in online course environments
  • Copyright and obsolete formats for library materials
  • Copyright related to data underpinning research
  • Classroom exemptions for face-to-face teaching and online teaching
  • Building from others’ ideas in published research
  • What to do if multiple people from a university are publishing research on similar topics

Upcoming MOOCs

In future sessions, it might be valuable to incorporate additional scenarios that are common in K–12 teaching environments. Including some examples from special or corporate libraries could be insightful as well. By necessity, the focus of the course was on U.S. copyright, although there was a section on the international implications of copyright issues in Week 4. The first offering of the course wrapped up in August, but interested individuals can sign up on the course page to stay informed about upcoming sessions.

Copyright for Educators & Librarians is one of a few new courses directly related to the work of librarians and information professionals. Metadata: Organizing and Discovering Information, taught by Jeffrey Pomerantz, director of undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science (SILS), is on its second run and covers the gamut of technical issues related to metadata such as ontologies, standards, interoperability, and linked data. Starting in September, an international team will lead a new MOOC hosted by Stanford University: Open Knowledge: Changing the Global Course of Knowledge. Open Knowledge will be a bilingual course in English and Spanish and will cover topics such as open source, open science, open data, open access (OA), and open education. 


Abby Clobridge is the managing director of Clobridge Consulting, a boutique firm specializing in knowledge management, information management, and open access. Abby has worked with a wide range of organizations throughout the world, including various United Nations agencies; colleges and research universities; nonprofit, intergovernmental, and multistakeholder organizations; the news media; and private sector companies. She can be found on Twitter @aclobridge.

Email Abby Clobridge

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