Who owns University Web Courseware?

Jan Newmarch
University of Canberra


There is a strong push by universities for staff to place courseware online, accessible by the Web. Many of the reasons given for this are good, but this paper argues that there may be other reasons that are not stated explicitly and which result in a shift in power structures between the academic and the ``university''. Some ways to counteract these are discussed, even though these are not being adopted by universities.

University Web Courseware

The World Wide Web is one of the latest IT phenomena to burst upon the scene. It has left industry, financial institutions and educational organisations scrambling to make the most of the perceived opportunities before their competitors do. Every organisation is being exhorted to throw money at the Web in order to increase profits, to carve out a market niche or to gain more students.

Most Universities are aggressively pursuing Flexible Delivery projects, putting more and more courseware on the Web. The slogan is invariably ``We aim to provide the best quality courseware on the Web''. Educators are being persuaded to place their courseware on the Web by arguments such as improved student perception of their courses, or - in some cases - by edict from above.

This paper argues that there may be other reasons, more directly of convenience to the ``University'' than to the staff member, and that this causes a shift of power away from academic staff. Some remedies are suggested for this, which are not being followed by most universities.

Corporate Memory

There have been several phases in delivery of lecture materials over the years

Academic staff have generally progressed from one of these modes to another on the basis of convenience. In the process there has been an increase in ``corporate memory'' relating to course content.

Content written on a black- or whiteboard is relatively transient. Students may be diligent in writing down the notes, but anyway they leave the university or discard there notes. Lecturers also leave, or cease teaching particular subjects.

Transparencies can be re-used, which makes them more attractive to staff. This also produces a longevity in existence, and makes it easier to pass on courseware.

Course content prepared using word-processing packages or presentation software is highly convenient to the staff member, in that it allows easy editing, easy display and easy printing in a variety of formats. It is also much easier to simply copy files from one staff member to another.

Although academic staff generally cooperate in attempting to pass on courseware as teaching responsibilities change, this is not usually done in an organised manner, and changeovers are rarely complete in terms of preservation of course content. It relies on individual staff members, and so in a large sense is ``invisible'' to the university as a body. While this has become easier for each style of content presentation, even for word-processed documents it is not perfect. Computer files often reside on the disk drives of individual academics who use their own naming conventions and directory organisation, and not all files may get copied.

Web based material, on the other hand, is highly visible to the university. It generally exists on university Web servers, and is linked with other courseware into a hierarchy of Web pages that represent the university's (or maybe just a School's or Faculty's) web presence. The pages will be backed up by central or School system administrators. Staff are being asked to put all of the content for a course online, so that the university now has the complete content available to corporate memory. Even if the staff member leaves, the course content will remain for re-use by the university.


In general, making course content part of the corporate memory is a good thing

On the other hand, it can weaken the position of an individual staff member

Corporate Ownership

Individual academics build up their own reputation through teaching, research and publications. Universities encourage this because it also builds up the reputation of the university. This reputation is part of the ``property'' of the university.

The University of Canberra has an explicit Intellectual Property policy. It states ``...the University claims ownership of all intellectual property created by a staff member... The University agrees that originators retain copyright in any materials, other than course materials...'' (emphasis added) [HREF1]. Issues in such policies and further examples are given by the AVCC [HREF2]. While course content remained in people's filing cabinets, this was essentially unenforcable. Once it is placed on the university's Web servers, though, this changes: the university can now assert ownership as it controls the servers and the files on them.

There does not appear to be an adequate definition of what ``courseware'' actually is. Most cases are clear-cut, where an academic prepares material specifically for a subject. However, there are cases where it is not so straightforward. For example, I prepare material for tutorials at conferences. This is not courseware for the University. However, if I later incorporate this into teaching materials for a subject, does it then become courseware with a corresponding change of ownership?

Another problematic situation occurs when an academic makes a hypertext reference to documents authored by someone else outside of the University. The principle of ``fair use'', only using a small amount of the external material does not appear to apply for Web documents which are often intended to be used freely. But the University can hardly claim ownership in this case!


Once the university has control of courseware on the Web, then it can control who has access to this courseware. This control extends both to staff and to students.

In the School of Computing at the University of Canberra the Web administrator rebuilds the page of courseware links each semester so that it only points to courseware on offer that semester. Some staff each semester are caught by this and erroneously think that the content has actually been removed when in fact only the link has been removed. This usually causes them some upset until the situation is explained to them. Although not too serious, it does illustrate the power that the university then has: the content could have been removed, with the academic having no control over this. Could this occur in practice over some particularly sensitive or controversial content?

I routinely complain to this Web administrator that I cannot simply ask students to refer to material taught in another semester. I can make a link to courseware from other semesters, but only if I can work out what the link actually is, and this depends on naming conventions, location of files, etc.

Requests to the Web administrator to change this behaviour have been rejected: the administrator believes that these decisions belong with him. The staff members have lost a measure of control over what is done with their courseware, and have potentially lost control over the allowable content of their Web courseware.

On the other hand is the audience for the courseware. Potential consumers may have their access restricted. Many universities have password control mechanisms in place to block access to other than registered students. I believe this is due to a mistaken confusion between Intellectual Property Rights and Intellectual Privacy Rights. While the university can assert ownership, this is also being used to assert the right to conceal. It is based on the argument that intellectual property can only be owned by hiding it from most of the world. This is in stark contrast to the encouragement given to academics to publish research results in international journals.

This may also be contrasted to more traditional means of publishing lecture notes. Many academic staff prepare sets of lecture notes before the start of semester and make these available for purchase. Some lecturers will only allow purchase by enrolled students of the subject. More commonly, the notes will be sold through a bookshop. While these will almost certainly be bought only by students of the subject, it is possible that they will be bought by other students, or even by general members of the public. This choice of distribution, which was formerly made by the lecturer, is now made about Web documents by Web administrators or by Web committees.

Authorship vs Delivery

Commercial courseware deliverers such as Computer Power make a distinction between the author of courseware and those who deliver the courseware. This distinction is made visible in the rates paid: an author gets paid substantially more than a mere deliverer.

Most universities do not make this distinction: a lecturer is typically given a subject to teach, and is responsible for authoring the courseware and delivering it. This is not universal: many institutions will team-teach, have course content committees, etc, to exercise more control over the courseware. Forms of quality control are probably beneficial to the courseware.


What is problematic is where an institution moves towards Web-based courseware without deciding what mechanisms it should have for deciding how to apportion/reward authorship against delivery. The danger exists that a contract lecturer could be employed at one level of the scale to author software, and then be discarded in favour of a lecturer at a lower level to deliver the software.


One of the ways that universities (and others) assert ownership is by means of copyright notices. A copyright notice is a legal claim, and is generally used to mean that unauthorised use (such as copying) is forbidden, that another party cannot claim ownership etc.

However, I do not know of any university that has properly investigated what the meaning of copyright is for Web documents, or has investigated the different forms of copyright notice that can exist.

The Open Source movement has become well known recently through the Linux operating system, although open source licenses have been used by many for years [HREF3]. This refers to the practice of releasing source code, not just binary code. There are a variety of Open Source licenses, which grant different rights as to what you can do with the source. For example, if you make any changes or extensions you may be able to keep these to yourself or you may be required to make such changes publically available.

The Open Source licenses apply to computer software. In addition, a number of licenses that apply to documentation are being developed. The Open Publication license [HREF4], for example, essentially states that anyone can make copies of the document, as long as the copyright notice remains. A rider can be attached limiting this to non-print copies, so that commercial publishers can negotiate publishing rights for paper copies, while not restricting electronic copies.

I have applied the Open Publication license to all of my Web pages, claiming copyright for ``Jan Newmarch, University of Canberra''. I believe that use of the Open Publication license may hinder any potential claim by the University that it owns ``privacy'' rights to these pages, since the license explicitly excludes such rights.


Courseware on the Web has long passed the age of pioneers and early adopters, and is now in the mainstream cycle. While pioneers and early adopters are largely curiousity driven about the new technologies, mainstream users need more positive aspects. There seem to be three main carrots used at present:

However, this paper has pointed out that there are risks to staff in placing courseware on the Web. These risks must be addressed explicitly by senior university staff. In addition to removing risks, I would argue that there are very major carrots that are being missed because of the confusion between property and privacy. These are looked at in the next four sections.

Delivery rights

The danger exists that some staff may be cast into the role of ``producers'' and others into ``deliverers'' without due regard or recompense. Each university will need to create an explicit policy for this issue.

A possible difficulty with this will be a common attitude of ownership by academic staff of material they create. Even if there is an explicit policy that such ownership does not exist, there may need to be a cultural shift about ownership within a university. Some universities have already made such adjustments, driven by other factors such as distance education, for example.

Courseware information

There are measurable techniques that can be employed to assess the value of courseware, or indeed of any Web pages. Web servers can be configured to produce a server log which records every access to a Web page. With caution, these can be analysed to determine how much access was made to courseware and from where.

By using techniques such as ``cookies'', it is also possible to build up a profile of what a typical user did while exploring your Web site. The number of pages looked at, the duration of time spent on your site, etc may be found.

Few Web administrators at universities perform such analyses. Commercial organisations are much better at this because they are conscious of the value (and the cost) of their Web site. This is often due to Universities not being fully aware of the corporate value of courseware in Web form. Worse, they are less aware of the value of server log data in acting as feedback to courseware authors.

When I first performed an analysis of my own server logs I was amazed at the volume of traffic, but then shocked by the way in which most users only looked at a few pages and then moved on elsewhere. On the other hand, many people stayed enough to demonstrate that they had found value [HREF5]. Ideally, all accesses would be from only those, but all of those, who would find value in my site. This involves a mixture of changes to my own site, changes to pointers to my site, and more fundamental research issues such as the Resource Data Formats under investigation by the World Wide Web Consortium.

Without such data collection, analysis and feedback, the courseware author remains largely unaware of such issues. However, most educators would relish constructive information and advice about how to build better courseware, and this is an advantage that is not easily offered by other delivery mechanisms. Universities should take advantage of this carrot.

Peer recognition

In research work, academics are encouraged to function under peer judgment mechanisms, often on an international scale. They are encouraged to submit publications to journals and conferences, and to apply for competitive grants. The rewards are recognition by peers, hopefully leading to recognition as authorities in their field. This may lead to promotion, but also leads to membership of professional bodies, to committees on these bodies, to editorship of journals, and so on.

It has not previously been possible to apply such peer recognition to courseware, because it has all been delivered on a local scale. However, if it is on the Web, and if it is globally accessible, then peer assessment mechanisms can be applied to it. Note that this cannot happen if the university has regrettably applied a policy of privacy.

I began placing courseware on the Web in the middle of 1994 (in the pioneering stage). I have registered my courseware with a number of sites that would now be called portals, with a number of search engines, and have employed techniques such as metadata to increase the visibility of the courseware. Over time, a number of individuals and organisations have placed links from their pages to my courseware.

The number and source of these links to pages is a measure of peer assessment in the value of courseware. On the internet, distance and location are no barriers, and all pages are equally accessible (barring privacy blocks). Pages are then differentiated by the quality of their content. Links to pages from well-respected sites are thus a measure of quality on a global scale.

The value of this assessment has not yet found its way into formal University mechanisms in the same way that, say, journal publications are rated. Universities should make attempts to perform such assessment, though.

``Just enough'' learning

Students in a formal course are expected to learn a body of material. There is a recognition that students will master this to different levels, and so many curricula are written to emphasise the competencies that will be attained. Assessment mechanisms such as examinations, assignments and projects are used to determine if students have met these competency levels.

Students on the Web do not necessarily fit into such structured organisational patterns. They may be studying a similar course, but at a different university. They may be professionals seeking to bone up on or learn a topic. They may be more casual seekers after information who are investigating your site.

The learning patterns of these Web users who are external to your own university are different to local students. The expectations that you might have as a lecturer to your own students are not applicable to these users. From my own experience these are often one step beyond the ``just in time'' learners: they are looking at your pages to get ``just enough'' learning, that is, just enough knowledge to solve their current problem without getting distracted by other material. They are usually characterised by looking at a small set of specialised material, and ignoring the rest.

As an educator, this group forms an additional group besides the local student. To pass knowledge to them is as much a thrill as to the local student. About half of my Web accesses at any time is from external users, but I would not have known about it unless I had done an analysis of my log access data. In addition, I have emails of appreciation from all over the world. This is a great carrot!


Universities vary in the way in which they can dictate to their staff. Most will try encouragement rather than coercion. However, in at least one US university the staff went on strike over demands that they place all materials on the Web.

Do academic staff have sticks that they can wield over what they may see as excessive University ``encouragement''? Without resorting to union action, they can insist on modifying, for example, default access policies. For example, they could insist on removal of password access to WebCT documents.

My own solution was more drastic and chaotic: since I set up the first Web server on our campus long before tools such as WebCT existed, my site is a rather random mixture of CGI scripts, JavaScript pages, server-side includes and Java applets. It would be difficult for someone else to take this over. However, this is a rather extreme way of maintaining tenure!


This paper has discussed the ways in which the power balance between academics and the university may have changed as a result of placing courseware on the Web. Some ways of overcoming this, including reward systems similar to those employed for research publications have been discussed.

If a university adopts these ideas then

The results are that the academic staff will have their teaching materials available for peer assessment and wider dissemination. Increases in the reputation of a university's staff will have the same positive flow-on effects to the reputation of the university as do peer assessed research results.

Hypertext references

University of Canberra ``Policy on Intellectual Property'', http://wasp.canberra.edu.au/secretariat/ip_plcy.html
AVCC ``Ownership of Intellectual Property'', http://ww.avcc.edu.au/pubs/ooipiu.htm
Open Source, http://opensource.org
J.D. Newmarch, ``Courseware on the Web - an Analysis of Student Use'', AusWeb97, Gold Coast, 1997, http://jan.newmarch.name/web/usage/paper.html
WebCT, http://www.webct.com

Jan Newmarch (http://jan.newmarch.name)
Last modified: Wed Apr 26 15:31:44 EST 2000
Copyright ©Jan Newmarch