MOOC provider EdX goes open source – with an interesting choice of licence

Earlier this month EdX, the nonprofit organisation set up by MIT and Harvard to provide a MOOC platform, released part of its code under an open source licence – the Affero GPL.

MOOCs – “Massive Online Open Courses” – have been hitting the headlines frequently in 2013, with high profile proponents and some big name backers. (For a good overview of the subject, I’d recommend reading MOOCs and Open Education: Implications for Higher Education, a white paper published by CETIS.)

The meaning of “Open” in MOOCs has been variously argued; however the prevailing model is one of open access to higher education, but not necessarily provided using an open platform.

The earliest MOOCs, and those operated by individuals or collectives rather than companies, have tended to operate using combinations of free of charge – though not necessarily open – services such as those offered by Google, WordPress, and Twitter, coordinated using open source course management platforms such as Moodle.

However, most of the high-profile commercially-oriented MOOCs have operated a bespoke online service based on either proprietary software, or solutions built using open source software but not necessarily available for others to replicate due to the so-called privacy loophole; that is, the modifications made to the software to deliver the service are not themselves required to be distributed to users.

The EdX announcement is interesting for two reasons – firstly that they are the first high profile MOOC provider to release open source – and secondly that they are doing so under the AGPL, one of a small number of open source licenses that specifically address the “privacy loophole”. This means that if you create your own MOOC service using EdX’s XBlock software, you must make the source code for the service – include your modifications – available to download under the AGPL. This is a form of “service provider copyleft” that ensures that EdX will have access to any improvements on their platform used by third parties.

This can be seen as a very cautious move – using the AGPL will ensure no other services can improve on the codebase without EdX getting access. However its also quite a bold one as it makes a clear distinction between how EdX sees “open” in contrast with Coursera, Udacity and others. (It remains to be seen what direction the UK’s FutureLearn initiative will take). It will also be interesting to see if other components of EdX will be released, and if so whether they will also use AGPL.

For more information on how online services use open source licenses, see How Can Services Be Open Source? 

The EdX XBlock code is available on Github.

6 thoughts on “MOOC provider EdX goes open source – with an interesting choice of licence

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  5. Amir Rahbaran

    Thanks for this great article. I’m also working on an education opensource project. This article helps beginners like me to understand what the impact of GPL is.


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