Copyright 101.2

How CopyrightX managed to convince hundreds of online students to stick with a course on copyright law

CopyrightX, an online course run out of Harvard this spring as part of the EdX program, was unusual in a couple of ways. It might not strictly be called a MOOC—a massive open online course—because it wasn’t open. More than four thousand people applied, and enrollment was capped at 500. Half of the selected students were women. There were equal number of students from the United States and from other countries. Students outside the US came from 70 different countries, in total. The youngest student was 13, the oldest 83. Although CopyrightX was a class about copyright law, only 30 of the 500 students were lawyers.

And these students stuck with the course. Most online courses have an appalling rate of attrition. Students start out with the best of intentions. But week after week, lecture after long, academic lecture, commitment flags. Usually around 90 percent of students drop out. For CopyrightX, two-thirds of those students made it through until the end. Fully half of them took the final exam —a typically grueling and mind-bending, four-hour law school take-home test, not much different from the exam Prof. Fisher gave Harvard Law School students.

“We built this course in part to engage people on a sustained basis, and they stuck with it,” Fisher says. The course’s design helped deliver that outcome: a team at Harvard spent months before the course thinking about how it would work. They focused on creating small groups, led by Harvard Law teaching fellows, that would meet regularly online to discuss course materials. The teaching fellows and the project’s coordinator, Nathaniel Levy, met regularly during the spring term to assess how the tools they were using to engage online students were working. But that deliberate design included the choice of materials, too. Fisher teaches real property law, legal history, and the various subfields of intellectual property law, and among those options he chose copyright as the subject of the course for a reason.

“All of the subfields of intellectual property are very important from an economics standpoint now, but copyright is the most culturally significant,” he says. “It influences the most diverse array of cultural practices… It permeates our life. It seemed a subject appropriate for an audience that I expected would be predominantly non-lawyers.”

Many of the students worked in fields where copyright law affected their work and livelihood—film, photography, software design, library science, and music. These are people who copyright law is meant to serve and who, proponents of copyright reform often say, are being badly served by a law that’s difficult for non-lawyers to understand. But it does seem that—for anyone willing to devote hours each week to law lectures and discussion sections—it is possible.

The CopyrightX class ran parallel to Fisher’s traditional Harvard Law class on copyright, and the two courses shared materials. The recorded lectures that CopyrightX students watched had to be at the same level as lectures prepared for some of the smartest law students in the country, because those students were watching them, too, in place of some of their more traditional lecture sections. If anything, Fisher says, the lectures were “more sophisticated than I congenitally produce in class, because I had more time to prepare them.” Some CopyrightX students initially struggled to adapt to the difficulty of reading dry case law, but, like any law student, they got the hang of it quickly enough. By the end of the course, it was clear that “people without any legal training can embed knowledge of copyright law into their own work and play,” says Fisher.

Although the CopyrightX was successful, limiting enrollment posed a problem. Fisher is committed to openness in education, a principle in tension with the decision to limit the class’ size. As a partial solution, Fisher made all the materials for the course available online, under a Creative Commons license, and invited others to lead their own version of the course.

One group that took up this challenge (at the urging of another Harvard Law professor) was based in Jamaica and led by Sarah Hsia Hall, a Harvard Law graduate. This group aimed to explore a simple question: “How can we shape copyright law in a way that enables us to better mobilize our creative content?” Jamaica has a remarkably high debt-per-capita ratio, but it also has Jimmy Cliff, Toots and the Maytals, and Bob Marley.

“Copyright mobilizes creative content, and creative content is what Jamaica does best,” says Hall.

Like the enrolled CopyrightX students, Hall’s group watched Fisher’s lectures each week and met in a small group. “I would edit the reading for length because my crew was not a set of hard-core academics,” she said. When she could, she used examples from Jamaica of the issues they were discussing. Her class included law students, one of Jamaica’s biggest music producers, the head of the country’s IP office, a high-ranking judge, an art critics, a visual artist, a prolific reggae writer and singer, and a record distributor and house music producer. Copyright discussions can get rowdy, and with such a diverse group of students with strong opinions, there was always some discord in the discussions, Hall said.

“They were hearing perspectives that they’d never heard before,” she says. “The judge would say these things and the whole class was like ‘What??’ But it was great because they got to see what the practical judicial perspective is versus the creative perspective.”

Although, in the lectures, Fisher presents various ways of understanding the law, he, too, has a perspective, on how both copyright and legal online education should work. To get a better sense of his view on copyright, check out Lecture 10 from CopyrightX. To get a better sense of his view on online legal education, consider applying for the class next year, when it will be offered again.

“The goal is to create, in an online setting, the kind of supervised discussions—discussions moderated by people who know the subject—that grip people and direct them along paths that are enlightening. It’s that combination that creates value,” Fisher says. “My goal is to make that value available widely, without charging.”

Disclosure: CJR has received funding from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to cover intellectual-property issues, but the organization has no influence on the content.

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Sarah Laskow is a writer and editor in New York City. Her work has appeared in print and online in Grist, Good, The American Prospect, Salon, The New Republic, and other publications. Tags: , , , ,