Why Universities Choose NC, and What You Can Do

Reading Wayne Macintosh’s feature on WikiEducator got me thinking again about some people’s dissatisfaction with those projects that use the NC clause. (I’m not a fan of the NC clause, but I have never projected these negative feelings onto institutions or faculty who adopt the clause.) So I started asking myself – why do universities adopt the NC clause for their OER projects in the first place? And if we wish they wouldn’t use the NC clause, what can we do about it?

When an institution enters a new world (like the world of open educational resources) we can and should expect the early adopters to move in baby steps, dipping their toes in before diving in head first. The force of will necessary to motivate the institution to take even these tiny initial steps comes at great personal costs of time, effort, and political capital to the individual champion or tiny band of champions who push the cause within the university. The costs are very real.

In my view, the so-called “free content movement” should welcome these institutions with open arms and applaud their first attempts at entry into the community. After all, just getting a handful of university courses digitized, licensed By-NC-SA, and posted online takes a massive commitment of time and love and tears and pain. This is a genuinely laudable first step. However, instead of a show welcome and gratitude, too often the institutional champions are greeted with complaints that their resources aren’t “free enough” and accusations that they must not really care about helping people learn, because they couldn’t convince their institutions or faculty peers from day one that they didn’t need the NC clause. After suffering the pains of conception and birth of their project, this feels like the ultimate insult to the champions. It dispirits and depresses them at exactly the moment when we should be encouraging them, building them up, and refreshing them before they begin round two.

Just as I experienced at USU, it isn’t long into an OCW project before faculty digest the general notion of sharing open educational resources. This gives them the prerequisite knowledge they need to become capable of understanding why the SA clause gives them all the protections they thought they needed from the NC clause. (Some of those who have been involved in the OER world for a long time tend to forget that there are some prerequisites to understanding this distinction, and tend to be frustrated by “newbies” who don’t get it.) Courses can then be moved from By-NC-SA to By-SA, just as we are in the process of doing at USU (we currently have approval from authors to make this change to a third of our 60 courses).

When we talk about a community of practice, we frequently describe new members as initially being on the periphery of the group, and over time moving toward the core of the group. If we view the open educational resources community or the free content community or whatever you want to call it as a community of practice, then we should fully expect see faculty and institutions begin at the periphery, move tentatively into the circle, and eventually make their way into full participation as core members of the group. In other words, we should expect to see them move from (C) to By-NC-SA to By-SA, and perhaps over time to By.

The “free content” movement should understand that the adopters of the By-NC-SA are their best potential recruiting ground. These are faculty that have already shown some interest in openness and are hanging around the periphery of the group. The free content people should be nice to them, compliment them and encourage them, and give them support in the painful process of *slowly* moving their institutions toward full participation in the community. All too often the only interactions between these groups are the free content folks preaching at the champions for “not caring enough” to make their content “truly free,” and the champions finally collapsing in exhaustion for being labeled hypocrites in the one endeavor they care most about.

In short, faculty and institutions generally move step by step, not all at once. The faculty and institutions who have chosen the NC clause need to be encouraged, nourished, and supported – not insulted or belittled. If we can demonstrate some patience and care, I believe we will eventually see most of the university-based OER projects move to By-SA, and perhaps then even to By. If we can’t demonstrate these virtues of patience and care, then all we are likely to see out of the universities is a trail of discarded, stagnant OER projects whose champions gave up on them.

So – why do they choose NC? Because they’re new to this world of OER. And what can you do about it? Perhaps someone will create (or, if it exists, popularize) a friendly, non-condescending, for-beginners version of why SA provides most of the protections people instinctively feel they need from NC. Then, when the time is right, we can share this OER with our friends in a spirit of helpfulness.