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New site aims to market free online lectures

A for-profit web site bases its business model on mining the internet for and then posting publicly available lectures from prestigious universities–and officials from at least one campus are reviewing the arrangement and reserving judgment.

Academic Earth, which launched in January, has more than 1,600 web-based video lectures from campuses nationwide, including Yale, Stanford, and MIT. Richard Ludlow, CEO of Academic Earth, said the site only uses videos posted under the Creative Commons license, which allows for-profit business to use the lectures, but not for commercial reasons.

Ludlow, who visited with MIT officials last week, said the videos would not be monetized unless university officials agreed to incorporate advertisements with the lectures. In those cases, revenues would be shared with the school.

He said Academic Earth would seek further face-to-face meetings with more universities in the coming weeks. 

Establishing a for-profit web site, Ludlow said, would be the only way to spread the collective wealth of university lectures and other videos to students worldwide.

"We want to have a sustainable model, so we are for-profit," said Ludlow, 23, a 2007 Yale graduate, adding that the site had 100,000 visitors in its first 16 days. "We wanted something that could not just produce something once and run out, but be an engine for growth and continue."

Academic Earth will monetize videos from other sources outside universities that post their content, Ludlow said.

Professors from the University of California-Berkeley who are featured on Academic Earth did not respond to several interview requests, but a campus spokesman sent a statement saying the school was "aware of Academic Earth’s utilization of course lecture videos" and would review the Creative Commons agreement.

"We have not authorized or otherwise granted permission for this particular use and are evaluating the situation," Berkeley’s statement said.

Academic Earth uses online lectures according to the type of Creative Commons license a school uses. Campuses such as Yale have licenses that force Academic Earth to split up lectures into different videos.

Mike Rouan, director of Stanford’s online distance learning program, said the school would not protest Academic Earth’s use of its video content as long as the company follows Creative Commons rules. Rouan said Stanford has one of the "most liberal" Creative Commons licenses, which means Academic Earth can use lectures in their entirety.

"The vision was [that] the kid in China who couldn’t afford books or shoes had access to [our lecture video library]," Rouan said. "We would hope it would get picked up by those types of efforts. … We really wanted it to be pushed out there. As long as Creative Commons is adhered to, we’re fine with it."

Fred Benenson, a spokesman for Creative Commons, said in a statement that for-profit web sites could be a tool in spreading free educational content that might otherwise be seen by only a limited student population.

"Our education division, ccLearn, is recommending that to the extent possible, educational resources be released under our attribution-only license, which permits commercial use, in order to provide for maximum access and reuse in all learning contexts," he said. "Clearly, from the non-legal perspective of creating more access to materials, portals like Academic Earth have value."

Ludlow said he first thought of a for-profit site that marketed online lectures while he was studying at Yale. Searching the web for help on his linear algebra class, Ludlow said he found helpful lecture videos through MIT’s OpenCourseWare–a project that makes almost all MIT course material available to the public–but found his classmates were unaware of the service.

"People didn’t really know about it," he said. "I researched it and saw there was a lot of content out there, but it’s not as well known, and I think it should be, given the quality of this information. … I thought it should be shared with the world."

Academic Earth plans to add new lecture videos weekly this year and finish 2009 with more than 10,00 videos available for visitors, the company said. The site currently has 17 subjects from six universities. Four of the top five "top rated lectures" are from Stanford, and every video comes with a short description. Visitors can rate each video lecture, and Ludlow said students soon will be able to write user reviews and answer inquiries in a question-and-answer section.


Academic Earth

Creative Commons

MIT OpenCourseWare

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