Coursepack sharing: An idea whose time has come?

For years, there’s been an uneasy truce between publishers and universities about the inclusion of copyrighted materials in universities’ online course web sites and “courseware” systems. Publishers and universities have been arguing for years over when posting such materials for courses is fair use, and when it requires permission and payment. While legal threats have sometimes been made or implied, involving universities like Cornell and UCSD (see this Library Journal article from October for background), the parties involved have tended eventually to either climb down or settle. (Cornell, for instance, negotiated an agreement with publishers in 2006.)

That general truce broke down this week, though. Three major academic publishers, with the backing of the Association of American Publishers, have sued Georgia State University officials over GSU’s postings of parts of their publications in their campus Blackboard and WebCT courseware systems. The plaintiffs contend that the posting of full chapters and lengthy excerpts in GSU’s courseware system is copyright infringement, not fair use, particularly when the Copyright Clearance Center offers licenses for many of those readings. I have not yet found a response from GSU.

At the same time, there’s been an increasing movement for university scholars, the authors of many of these course readings, to make their works freely available online, open for reading and reuse. Open Access News has recently posted summaries of recent open access mandates from bodies like NIH and Harvard, and of open textbook initiatives. The open courseware movement, where professors freely share their own course materials with the world, is also gaining steam, with many universities now offering open courseware sites, and a conference being held in China later this month to further extend the scope and reach of free course materials.

These two trends, combined, could lead to some interesting outcomes. If schools, for whatever reason, want to eliminate or minimize payment and permission requirements for course materials, and a growing body of literature potentially useful for course materials is openly available, then we can expect to see schools move towards building coursepacks made entirely, or mostly, of open access materials. They are therefore motivated to find, and build, systems for easily compiling such coursepacks.

Right now, it can be difficult to find suitable open access readings for a class you’re planning on teaching. Tools like OCWFinder help, but they’re more geared towards finding specific existing courses with open access materials (which might be no more than a syllabus and a few assignments in some cases) than finding specific open access readings that might be suitable for a planned course.

But in a world that’s brought us global content sharing systems like Flickr, CiteULike, and PubMedCentral, it’s not that much of a stretch to imagine systems that would let instructors provide and share open access course readings more readily. A well-designed, browsable and searchable repository of such readings could provide a convenient way for professors to upload, organize, and disseminate open coursepacks for their students (“Just go to the OpenCoursePacks website, and type in the name of my course”, they could say). The same site could also let profs could tag, annotate, and recommend their readings, thereby making it that much easier for other professors to find and include suitable open access content in their own coursepacks. With a good design, and suitable scale and interest, a coursepack sharing site could make a lot more good instructional material widely and freely used and shared.

Will that happen? I don’t know. But it’s an intriguing idea, I think, and perhaps someone could run with it, or something like it. Perhaps someone already is.

Author: John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library architect and planner at the University of Pennsylvania.