Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Coursera TOS: All your essay are belong to us

Something about the Coursera terms-of-service came up in a discussion at Google+ today which I thought would be worth noting here for future reference. Here is the quote from the Coursera TOS which someone shared with me:
With respect to User Content you submit or otherwise make available in connection with your use of the Site, and subject to the Privacy Policy, you grant Coursera and the Participating Institutions a fully transferable, worldwide, perpetual, royalty-free and non-exclusive license to use, distribute, sublicense, reproduce, modify, adapt, publicly perform and publicly display such User Content.
 Compare this message from the instructor which we received early on in the course:
Please remember that the essay belongs to the essayist. None of us has the moral or, under U.S. copyright law, the legal right to post someone else's essay. One does have the right to post a brief quotation if one is using that "for the purpose of criticism or review" (again, quoting U.S. copyright law), but one can probably do just as well with paraphrase. ("In an essay I read, the writer asserted that....") Even if one is praising a fellow participant, lengthy quotes are not legal.
Well, judging by the Terms-of-Service, it appears that the essay does not really belong to the essayist after all - it also belongs to Coursera. So, as fellow students, we don't have the right to post someone else's essay without permission, but that same limitation seems not to apply Coursera. Instead, Coursera seems to have secured the right to re-use the essays whenever and however and for whatever reason they want. Coursera, yes ... but fellow students, no...?

Now, speaking just for myself, I would be glad for my essays to be re-used. Far better for someone to get some use of them rather than having them just go into the virtual trash can. That's one reason why I posted my essays at an open portfolio site. Future iterations of this course, in my opinion, would benefit greatly from the re-use of past essays as models of student writing so that students unfamiliar with essay-writing could have a gallery of styles and options to browse through and learn from.

Meanwhile, though, what prompted me to write this blog post was to note that while the instructor of the course seems to think we retain the copyright to our essays, apparently we do not.

All your essay are belong to us.


  1. I believe that "non-exclusive license" means that you still have the rights to your own content except that you cannot prohibit Coursera to publicly display it. It may be that your old forum posts will remain and be visible to future students who did not participate to this instance of the course.

    Now about the re-use of essays: on the Internet History course a peer grader posted on the forum someone else's essay for the first peer assessment assignment just as an example of a very good essay.
    Looks like some students then recycled this essay (almost word-for-word with spelling errors included) as their own for the third peer assessment. Unfortunately two of them ended up to be graded by the same peer...

  2. Oh yes, absolutely, you do still have your rights (that would be pretty crazy if Coursera told me I couldn't publish my stuff on my own blog), but it also sounds like there is no opt-out option. So, if for some reason I didn't want Coursera to be able to include my work in, say, a textbook that they sell for the course to future students, there's no thing I could do about that.

    One thing that kept happening in our class was that people were getting accused of plagiarism just for having posted their essays at their own blogs. Pretty crazy! Some people were using plagiarism-tracking software without any real understanding of how it works. I am glad I am not one of the people who was unfairly accused of plagiarism in that way. For me, it was definitely important to put my essays online openly (I take the "open" in a MOOC very seriously... the more open, the better!), but some people at the discussion forums said they had decided not to publish their essays, exactly because they were afraid of being accused of plagiarism. Ouch.

  3. I'd add that open online courses, even of the x-variety, should encourage student networks and blogs outside the silo (the expression toxic treehouse also comes to mind). Of course, that would mean less trackable keystrokes outside the system.

    I appreciated the blogs posting writing assignments. For reasons of my own that may not be as or even at all relevant, I decided at the beginning to follow that particular presumption on anonymity and blog later.

    In retrospect, I would not do it again but still don't see much point or value in Forum-as-anarchists-commune ~ and too time consuming even if I did. Forget about contributing to a Wiki that is not open.

  4. Hello,
    Is it allowed to republish your excellent post on ? I will put backward link.
    I want to gather reviews of coursera in one place.

    1. This is not a course review - but thank you for letting me know about your site! I will write a review there. At the moment, the class is not over yet (there is a big argument going on now about the grading) - but as soon as the course is over I will be sure to write a review at your site. Thank you for letting me know about that!

  5. Thanks to Laura for the link here.

  6. Hey Laura and others,

    Just found this blog, and I thought you had interesting stuff :-) I'm new to Coursera, and I was wondering about something. In regards to posting our own written essays on our blogs, is this really allowed? I've seen this question popping up in the discussion forums but haven't seen Coursera staff address it. Would publishing our own essays on our blogs violate Coursera's Honor Code in respect to the following regard:

    "I will not make solutions to homework, quizzes or exams available to anyone else. This includes both solutions written by me, as well as any official solutions provided by the course staff."

    I also tried contacting Coursera in regards to this but haven't received a response yet. Would you know if there's any other documentation somewhere I can refer to that states that Coursera does allow publication of our own essays? Perhaps, I may like to publish some of my essays on my blog in the future. Any help would be greatly appreciated.


  7. That discussion raged endlessly in the course I took but it seemed pretty obvious to me that the problem was just Coursera's failure to anticipate a class where students would not just be coming up with objective answers to questions for homework and quizzes ("solutions" as it says there), but instead doing something really creative. If you shared the answers to homework or a quiz, that could lead to cheating... but sharing your own creative work has to be allowed, surely. I have very little respect for Coursera right now, but if they were to contend that you, as the author of creative work for a course, did not have the right to republish your own work at your own blog, OUCH, I would say that would be about as bad as it gets! I am fairly sure the problem must just be that they have not rewritten their honor code to take into account the variety of classes that they offer, and instead the honor code reflects the original Coursera courses, which had no creative work, only solutions to objective homework and quiz questions.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.



Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.