Worlds of Education

Are edtech platforms threatening academic freedom and intellectual property rights?

published 6 May 2024 updated 6 May 2024
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Digital platforms are routinely used in universities to support teaching and learning, but they can also challenge academic freedom and intellectual property (IP) rights. In our new report for Education International, ‘Behind the platforms: Safeguarding intellectual property rights and academic freedom in Higher Education’, we reviewed the landscape of edtech platforms used in higher education (HE) to facilitate learning and assessment, closely examining their terms of use and privacy policies to make sense of the challenges they pose to academic freedom and intellectual property.

When academics use a digital edtech platform, IP rights are determined by agreements made during negotiations between a platform vendor and an institution. Importantly, these agreements may (1) assign IP rights related to the content created or shared through the platforms, and (2) determine rights related to data collection, processing and ownership.

Evolving intellectual property arrangements in the digital space

The digitalisation of HE raises distinctive challenges regarding the ownership and copyright of academic content when it is published and distributed on an online learning platform. Edtech companies do not usually claim ownership of any academic content posted on their platforms. Academic IP is more commonly claimed by institutions. However, agreements with institutions often mean edtech platform companies can license content to use for various, often vaguely designated purposes.

Platform licenses could translate into individual academic educators losing control of their own content, as it could be used for purposes not anticipated when originally designed for educational delivery. Greater clarity over content IP should be an urgent priority as edtech platforms increasingly incorporate Artificial Intelligence (AI) and it is conceivable – as a recent US example indicated – that academic and student content could be used for training or fine-tuning AI systems.

Transforming user data into valuable assets

Edtech platforms used by universities also routinely collect user data, including posted content, engagement and activity data. From an IP perspective, the significance of such data is that platform operators can exercise control over some of this data, treating the data as valuable assets for the commercial purposes of improving or developing products and marketing.

Therefore, platform vendors can monetise user data through product development, leading to downstream impacts on teaching and academic labour through changes in platform functionality. Retaining control rights of such data is therefore a business priority of edtech platform companies. User data is considered a valuable asset, collected for the potential value it might yield in the future, not necessarily because of the current requirements of a platform or for wider educational purposes.

Academics’ time versus freedom

Due to changing forms of ownership and rights over IP, platforms are becoming significant in terms of academic freedom. Edtech platforms can constrain educators’ pedagogic autonomy, setting frameworks for the selection and presentation of materials, the structure of courses, and the nature of assignments The rapid introduction of AI into edtech platforms, enterprise software, and institutional practices makes the issue of academic freedom and autonomy even more acute. AI-based services can make various decisions automatically, leading users to make particular decisions or denying users choice for decision-making altogether, ultimately running counter to principles of academic freedom and pedagogic autonomy by offloading pedagogic discretion to platform algorithms.

The recent spread of ‘generative AI’ such as large language models, which can automatically produce text in response to user prompts, has led to significant promotion of the idea that academic educators can save time by allowing AI to prepare content, structure courses, and automated assessment. Such services, which are now built in to major learning management systems used by institutions around the world, appear to challenge educators’ freedoms in relation to course content.

Where do we go from there

Already, some educator unions in HE are making efforts to address concerns about the impact of AI on academics’ intellectual property rights, job security, workload, and potential diminished autonomy and freedom. While AI supporters suggest educators could easily reduce workload burden by offloading some aspects of their labour to AI – such as course preparation and marking – no clear policies or agreements exist to protect educators’ rights.

One of the recommendations of the study is make contractual processes between universities and edtech vendors much more transparent so that it is apparent to academic workers what rights they retain over their content, or which rights are licensed to edtech operators, and which user activity data are extracted from institutions through contractual agreements. Contracts with edtech vendors may seem to be boring legal documents – but they are important processes where important aspects of academic freedom and IP are negotiated. Edtech contracts therefore have far-reaching implications for academic labour.

More broadly, contractual agreements between HE institutions and edtech vendors may favour profit-making objectives over the public and educational values of universities. As recent research has shown, higher education offers edtech companies valuable market opportunities, because institutions have become voracious consumers of commercial platform services, paying significant fees for licenses, and platform operators are able to monetise the data collected as part of their contractual agreements with institutions.

Some of these contracts lock in institutions to long multi-year agreements, with very high costs associated with switching to a different provider. Yet academics are often unaware of the contractual agreements being made with platform vendors, or may not be consulted regarding decisions that will ultimately impact their working conditions. Important decisions that affect academic freedom to teach are made without their participation, and with no protection from international standards or regulatory instruments.

In September this year, the only international instrument setting out norms and standards concerning teachers in HE institutions – the 1997 UNESCO recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-education teaching personnel – is due for review by the Joint ILO/UNESCO Committee of Experts on the Application of the Recommendations concerning Teaching Personnel. Earlier this year, the United Nations Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on the teaching profession called for the adoption of an up-to-date international instrument, including a convention on a revision of existing instruments.

Recommendations regarding digital platforms and their implications for academic freedom and intellectual property should be priority considerations for an international instrument to protect teaching personnel in higher education. Teaching unions should be advancing campaigns on the impacts of technology services on academic labour as platforms and AI become key influences on teaching practice in universities. At a time of significant pressure on universities to adopt and adapt to platforms and AI, academic workers require protections through internationally agreed standards and instruments.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.