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Speaking Out

Multimedia Courseware at Penn

In response to the Senate Chair's recent message on intellectual property (Almanac October 7), I want to address the issue of multimedia courseware, because there appears to be an extreme divergence of views between the 1994-95 task force on copyright policy, as discussed in the article by Vivian Seltzer, and one of our deans. The latter has stated that "...courseware used in the property of the University," and that "... formal teaching activities are what faculty are paid for by Penn and therefore their products are owned by Penn."

There are two components to the multimedia tutorials that I am developing under an NSF grant: the content and the computerization of the content. The content comprises words and illustrations that are essentially the same as found in a textbook. In fact, most of the tutorial content is based on a textbook that I co-authored. The copyright of a textbook has always resided with the author(s), including authors who are faculty members at colleges and universities. Some textbooks (unfortunately not ours) generate substantial income that accrues to the author(s). I am not aware of any logical argument to the effect that this procedure should be altered at Penn or elsewhere.

Anyone who has carried out normal faculty duties knows that this kind of creative activity cannot be carried out in one's office during normal working hours. There are simply too many other duties and interruptions. That means it has to be done in the evenings, on weekends, on vacations, on sabbaticals, etc. Certainly, this has been the case with me. Therefore, an argument that the University should own this kind of "courseware" because it is part of normal teaching activities, for which the faculty are already being paid, simply has no merit. If a university wants to discourage textbook writing by faculty, and to attract faculty lacking the capacity or the desire to write textbooks, then this policy would have some logic to it.

The computerization of the words and illustrations is a different matter. In our project, the analog of "software" as envisioned in Penn's present policy is the user interface and the template that we have developed, into which we put the words and pictures. The present policy, as I understand it, is that the University has the royalty-free right to use this interface and template, and I have no problem with that. In other words, the present policy appears to cover my situation adequately.

The real problem at Penn regarding multimedia courseware, as I see it, has to do with the lack of involvement by the University in the development of this potentially important mode of teaching. A university committed to modern education would be prepared to provide the resources that faculty need to carry out such development. It would have a fund analogous to the Research Foundation to which faculty could make proposals to buy the necessary computers, software, video-editing equipment, cameras, etc. It would also have a central facility staffed by experts who would know the latest techniques and equipment, and who would be available to assist faculty and students in getting started in creating multimedia courseware. Unfortunately, Penn has almost no such experts and no fund for courseware development, as far as I can tell. As a result, I have had to raise the money for equipment elsewhere, sometimes out of my pocket, but mainly from the NSF, and we have had to go outside the University for the essential expertise. All this makes the process of multimedia-courseware development at Penn tortuous at best.

The probability that there is big money to be made in the courseware area is small. Every faculty member in the country has the opportunity to get into this kind of development, and many are doing it now. There will probably be a proliferation of locally developed courseware, much more so than in the case of conventional textbooks. Rather than beginning the contemplation of what to do about computerized courseware by focusing on ownership and income, the University should begin by asking how important this is now and is likely to be in the future, and how much of a commitment the University is prepared to make to support it. Penn, unfortunately, appears to be lagging behind other institutions, including many that are nowhere near the top ten in U. S. News and World Report. The lag is by no means irreversible. The question is, how much real interest is there in this new form of education at Penn?

--Charles McMahon, Professor of
Materials Science and Engineering

Ode to the Corporate University

Free choices academic or otherwise
Will certainly face a demise
If corporations make decisions
With economic precision
Of whether profit margins are the right size.

Consider Barnes and Noble; Trammell Crow
Whose main ambitions are to grow.
Cappucino's awash, great books in short supply,
Frightened employees passing by
Who gets the benefit while Penn loses its soul?

--Judith Bernstein-Baker, Director,
Public Service Programs, Law School

Bookstore Committee-Not

For the record, I would like it to be known that I resigned from the Bookstore Committee in April of this year.

I was a bookseller prior to coming to Penn and was thrilled when I was selected to serve on the Committee. Much to my dismay, notification of Committee meetings either occurred the day of the meeting or not at all, making it impossible for me to attend. I was surprised to see my name included in the Bookstore Committee Report (Almanac October 14) since I never attended a meeting, received only one set of minutes (from March) and resigned in April, well before the report was written and submitted.

--Susan R. Passante, Assistant Director
Office of Research Administration

Ed. Note: Year-end reports of Council Committees are "reports of the chair" (not of the committee as a whole), but in forwarding them to Almanac the Office of the Secretary adds for the record a list of the membership as it stood in the Committee on Committees lists on appointment; normally a name is not removed if the resignation occurs well into the academic year.

Some years ago, the practice was to list only the author's name with a published year-end report. While this made it clearer that the report is of the chair and not of the whole committee, some chairs felt it failed to give proper credit for service. So we have tried to split the difference by carrying both, but attempting by typography to indicate the distinction between authorship and membership.--K.C.G.

Speaking Out welcomes reader contributions. Short timely letters on University issues can be accepted
Thursday noon for the following Tuesday's issue, subject to right-of-reply guidelines.
Advance notice of intention to submit is appreciated.-Ed.

Return to:Almanac, University of Pennsylvania, November 11, 1997, Volume 44, No. 12