MOOCs and the Law

If MOOCs are so great, how come no one has been sued over them yet?

This sentiment is meant mostly in jest.  I say “mostly” because creators of other great innovations and new industries in the past have only been seen to have “made it” when someone finds them worth dragging into court.

While the legal bloodbath that took place over the founding of Facebook (documented in the smashing film “The Social Network“) has a lot to do with the personalities involved, it also indicates the stakes (measured in dollars) of the social media revolution.

The MOOC revolution, in contrast, has not been accompanied by very many dollars to fight over (if you don’t count the $100 million or so investors have sunk into companies like Udacity, edX and Coursera).  And if you were come up with a list of potential legal flashpoints, one of the few items I can think of being on that list would be contract law.

For instance, I suppose a litigious soul could construe the existence of some sort of contract between students who enroll in a MOOC class and the professor, institution and vendor responsible for bringing it to market (which means courses being cancelled for technical or temperamental reasons would imply a breach of that contract).  But a cornerstone principle of contract law is that something of value must be exchanged (which is why a parent giving his house to his children must seal the deal in a contract in which he or she “sells” the home for $1).

In the case of a MOOC, however, nothing of monetary value flows from the course taker to the course giver, which makes it difficult to claim a contractual obligation exists between the two parties.  The fact that signing up for an account on any of the major MOOC platforms doesn’t require you to sign a long, dense legal agreement (a la Google or Facebook) also indicates no one views the relationship between student and teacher/institution/vendor as legally contractual.

Now schools that sign on to an edX or Coursera no doubt agree to a carefully worked-out agreement of some sort.   But given that there have been no consequences when this professor dropped out of his own class or that one chose to not teach his course a second time, it seems likely that such contracts are pretty loose with regard to obligations placed on either party.

Which just leaves the agreements between investors and recipients of venture capital (or signed covenants and charters in the case of non-profits) as potential sources for legal disputes.  But, at least for now, we still seem to be in a honeymoon phase.  Which means it may take some time before we see if any legal landmines await our favorite MOOC provider(s).

So if contract law is not likely to impact the MOOC universe (at least for the foreseeable future), what other legal storm clouds are on the horizon?

If you answered “copyright,” then tomorrow’s podcast is for you.

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