Of authorship and ownership

I’ve written on this topic previously (Chance encounters, May 2005) but I’ve been building up to another shot for some time and events today finally brought me to tipping point.

This morning one of the members of our University committee that deals with our LMS passed on a copy of an EDUCAUSE report (Diaz, 2009). The committee chair later circulated it to the entire committee and a few others. Evidently he thought it was important.

This afternoon Academic Board discussed fleximode, the tag used to refer to the policy that provides for all students in a course, whether studying on campus or at a distance, to have access to all the materials and experiences offered to support learning in the course. The term is not well understood across the university and is sometimes thought to represent another distinct mode of study alongside the more established on campus, external (correspondence) and online modes. Part of that discussion related to the adoption, from the beginning of 2009, of ICE (Integrated Content Environment) as the official means for producing course materials that can be delivered as web pages, on CDROM or in print. I’ve written previously about ICE (Why does PT keep going on …, November 2005).

The events of today are the proximate cause of this post but the urge goes back to January and February of this year when I spent rather more time than I had expected revising materials for a course I am teaching this semester. The course had been first developed several years ago and had been taught serially by at least 4 full-time or casual staff faculty members each of whom would have had opportunity, though not necessarily time allocated, to revise the course materials. Being a good corporate citizen, I thought it was time that I tried using ICE (rather than my preferred web editor) to prepare the materials. The most recent version available in ICE was that which was used in 2007 and I began working with those files in the ICE template.

I was prepared for the inevitable broken links to web pages that had disappeared since the materials were prepared. I was even prepared for some outdated references, phrasing that sat awkwardly with me, and occasional fractured syntax. I was surprised when I found discussion of what might happen in the late 1990s expressed in the future tense. Evidently the revisions had not been as recent, frequent, or extensive as I had hoped. Rather than a few hours of light editing I found myself engaged in several days of more extensive revisions to get the materials into a shape that I could live with.

As a consequence of that experience, I am more than ever determined not to engage in a similar editing process again and to avoid allowing material I have written to be similarly revised. In my previous post (Chance encounters, May 2005) I described the commonly used approach to revision of course materials and its inherent problems. At Academic Board this afternoon I noted the potential for academics teaching courses using such revised materials to be either credited with excellent materials or burdened with the stigma of less exemplary materials for which they may bear little or no responsibility. The lack of clear identification of authors on course materials and the tendency to show the date of publication as the current year regardless of actual revision history could be interpreted as fraudulent. Far better would be a system that followed the regular conventions of academic work by clearly indicating the provenance of the materials. Dated materials should be supplemented or replaced by new material.

The paper (Diaz, 2009) circulated by my colleagues this morning looks at some issues around intellectual property associated with e-learning materials and the particular challenges posed by use of Web 2.0 tools. It is written from an institutional perspective and argues strongly for adopting strategies that ensure ownership of IP in e-learning materials is clearly vested in the institution and that materials are stored on institutional systems. The discussion at Academic Board touched on similar issues.

It seems clear to me that both the challenges and the potential solutions are likely to be similar across institutions. I’d argue strongly that, for the reasons I outlined above, at Academic Board, and elsewhere (Chance encounters, May 2005), dilution of authorship and incremental revision of materials as practised now and advocated to some extent by Diaz (2009) should not be elements of a solution. In regard to encouraging, or enforcing, storage of materials on institutional systems, I suspect that the solution is tied to fitness for purpose. If the systems are well designed, most academics will take the path of least resistance because that will provide the easiest and most suitable solution for them and their institution. On the other hand, if poorly conceived or implemented systems make it more difficult to comply than to step around the system, there will be encouragement for non-compliance.


Diaz, V. (2009). Intellectual Property Policies, E-Learning, and Web 2.0: Intersections and Open Questions (Research Bulletin, Issue 7). Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research. Retrieved April 8, 2009, from http://www.educause.edu/Resources/IntellectualPropertyPoliciesEL/169662