There are two significant issues to be addressed in obtaining a reliable answer to the question of whether or not schools can capture significant amounts of value from the intellectual property in the content of online courses.
First, for most schools, will there be significant quantities of intellectual property embodied in online courses built by the schools’ faculty members? Second, if there is significant intellectual property embodied in online courses created by a school, will the school be able to monetize and capture some or all of that value?
For some schools there will be significant intellectual value creation when online courses are built by faculty members. Harvard, for example, defines its primary mission as creation of knowledge. If new knowledge is embodied in online courses authored by some of its faculty members, then there will be important intellectual property creation.
But for many other schools, this is not so certain a result. Required to create online courses, many faculty members will pull content off the Internet – content that is free and will not acquire any significant value by being placed in an online course. For content developed by faculty members themselves, much of it will be inferior to that developed elsewhere, by more expert persons in a field, and will therefore acquire no significant value as intellectual property. Hence, for most courses created at most schools there will be no significant value to the intellectual property embedded in the courses.
In those few situations where an online course created by a faculty member at a school has significant intellectual property embodied in it, will the school be able to capture the value of that property? A business corporation might value the intellectual property and include it on the firm’s balance sheet, drawing potential gains thereby in its stock valuation or using the intellectual property as part of collateral for loans. A not-for-profit school rarely has a balance sheet and rarely borrows against it. So even if there is financial value in intellectual property which is embedded in online courses created by its faculty members, and which intellectual property the school owns, the school may still lack a way to gain from it.