We are now OE GLOBAL.
You are viewing archived content. Please visit oeglobal.org for our new site.

Setting Learning Free

Information World Review

Perhaps it is the global reach of the open courseware movement that offers the most radical challenge to the traditional localized method of delivering education. Some of the OpenCourseware Consortium’s members are experimenting with new models. Universia, for example, is a collaboration between a number of Spanish and Latin American universities, funded by the Bank of Santander.

In the late 1990s, when everybody wanted to take advantage of the moneymaking opportunities offered by the Internet, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Latest News about Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) decided that it too wanted a slice of the action. MIT was, and still is, one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Couldn’t it use some of the intellectual property it was creating on its campus to generate some additional revenue?

A committee of faculty members looked at the issue but decided, after careful consideration, that the Internet didn’t offer much of an opportunity to make money, after all. Why not, the committee suggested, focus instead on the university’s core mission: “to advance education and serve the world”?

That refocus led MIT to a radical new proposition. In the words of Anne Margulies, now executive director of MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW), “They decided that the best way the Internet could be used to fulfill that mission would be to give the materials away.”

Legitimate Concerns

Such a bold idea was not an easy one to bring to fruition. There were complex copyright issues to sort out, and not all MIT’s academic staff were enamored of the idea. “They had legitimate concerns about how much of their time it was going to take and whether they were going to get bombarded with e-mails,” explains Margulies. “And they were worried about how they handled the materials they used from other people in their courses.”

Turning course materials into a format suitable for online use, with a standard browser interface Manage remotely with one interface -- the HP ProLiant DL360 G5 server. was also a substantial task.

Funding worth US$11 million was obtained from two sources: the Hewlett Foundation, a U.S.-based charity devoted to social, educational and environmental causes, and the Mellon Foundation, another philanthropic organization, which provides grants to universities and museums.

Opening Salvo

In 2002, MIT launched its OpenCourseWare site with materials from 32 courses in 16 academic departments. This has since expanded to include materials from 1,550 courses, including not just course notes but audio and visual materials too. By the end of this year, material from all 1,800 courses run by MIT will be available online.

According to Margulies, the facility has proved immensely popular. In January this year, the site received 1.5 million visits from all over the world, 60 percent of which came from outside the U.S., with India and China the biggest users. MIT is now partnering with other organizations to translate its OCW materials: about 400 courses are currently available in other languages besides English.

Where MIT has led, the rest of the world has been keen to follow. There are now 60 higher education institutions offering open courseware programs, including several universities in the U.S., China and Europe. These institutions, as well as around 60 more that are at the planning stage, have formed the OpenCourseware Consortium to share ideas and experiences.

Currently, the only UK member of the consortium is the Open University (OU), which launched an ambitious open courseware program, OpenLearn, in October last year. At its launch, OpenLearn had 900 learning hours’ worth of material on the site. The target is to have 5,400 learning hours on the site by April 2008 — about 5 percent of the OU’s entire course content.

Like many of the other institutions taking part in the consortium, the OU has received partial funding — Pounds 2.5 million ($4.9 million) — from the Hewlett Foundation to get the two-year pilot scheme started. The full cost of the scheme is expected to be Pounds 5.6 million ($11 million). The university will pay some of this itself, but it is also bidding for a second tranche of funding from Hewlett.

Self-Study Design

Part of the reason for Hewlett’s decision to support the OU, says Laura Dewis, OpenLearn’s communications manager, is that all its existing students are distance learners, so its teaching materials are designed specifically for self-study.

The project has a wider scope and ambition than many other open courseware offerings. As well as providing print and audiovisual materials online, the site offers students the opportunity to register and join a learning community.

“The instant messaging system has extra presence indicators to show who’s online, and who’s on your unit studying with you, so you could start a text chat with them,” says Dewis. “You have videoconferencing, so you could freely book a videoconference and ask other people to join you, or just advertise that it’s happening at a particular time. Or you could have a group using learning materials together who simply want to use the technology to meet remotely.”

So who is using open courseware? In many cases, it seems to be too early to give definite answers. Universities want to make their materials as accessible as possible, so most do not require users to register their details. MIT’s research suggest that half of its users are using the materials to teach themselves, while 35 percent are students at other institutions, and another 15 percent are educators using the materials in their own teaching.

According to Dewis, OpenLearn, which has had more than 300,000 unique visitors since its launch, has a wide range of users, including older learners, who come to the site through the University of the Third Age, current OU students (sometimes using the materials to read ahead before their own copies arrive in the post), continuing professional development groups and younger students through the National Association for Gifted and Talented Youth.

High Satisfaction Rates

A survey this year found satisfaction rates of 95 percent among course material users, says Dewis. One survey respondent wrote: “I am currently disabled and unable to work so I can’t join traditional fee-paying learning but this sort of thing is perfect.”

However, why do universities want to spend huge amounts of money giving away their valuable intellectual property for nothing? The aim often seems to be to attract students to the institution by offering them a taster of what they might expect.

Terri Bays, program director of open courseware at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, says: “The idea is that Hewlett funds us to get started, and we produce the courses as a way of demonstrating the value of this kind of enterprise. Universities themselves would eventually have a great deal of institutional buy-in.”

The same is true at the Open University of the Netherlands, an institution modeled on the UK’s OU, whose open courseware pilot program is part-funded by the Hewlett Foundation, and part-funded by the government.

Obvious Danger

“The university will see it as being successful if it has not led to a decrease in the client base and hopefully has led to an increase,” says Paul Kirschner, professor of educational technology at the university. “The minister of education will consider it successful if people who would not have normally gone to a polytechnic or university have gone onto higher education, inspired by what they’ve done and seen in the open courseware project.”

The obvious danger is that students, having used the free materials, will decide there’s no point in paying money to enroll. “There’s a little bit of apprehension that if you give it away free you’ll lose your client base,” acknowledges Kirschner. He argues, however, that what makes a university course distinctive is that it offers tutoring from experts, the ability to have one’s work assessed and the opportunity to gain a qualification — none of which applies to open courseware.

There are other advantages for the universities. Bays points out that Notre Dame’s enrolled students can benefit from the availability of the open courseware materials just as much as outsiders. She offers the university’s anthropology course as an example: “A very significant portion of the class attend human archaeology labs where the students identify different kinds of bones and what distinguishes them, learning to recognize different pathologies and acquiring aging techniques.” The aim is to replicate that experience interactively online using Flash and other visual technologies. “Currently, if the students go into the lab and do poorly, it’s a one-shot deal. What the online module will do is enable the students to go back and review that lab if they didn’t understand it the first time.”

Another hoped-for benefit is retention, says Dewis. Open courseware offers potential students a taster of what the university has to offer, enabling them to decide whether a course is genuinely suitable for them. Again, it is much too early to see whether this will be borne out in practice.

A Fundamental Switch

The most striking feature of the open courseware movement is that it requires a fundamental switch in institutions’ approach to information, one shared by the open access movement in scholarly publishing. You might expect academics to be keen to protect and copyright course materials that are the product of years of research and teaching experience. Yet all members of the open courseware consortium make their course materials available under a Creative Commons license, in which people can use the materials freely, provided they accredit the institution as the source of the material and do not use it for profit.

A difficulty for most institutions is that course materials often include references to work by third parties. Bays admits it can take a long time to receive a reply to a request for permission to use material, although usually the answer is positive. “Small publishers are very often willing to cooperate with putting materials online precisely because it gives them exposure, especially if they’re looking for niche audiences. Their stipulation is often, ‘Please link to our Web site.'”

The Creative Commons license offers exciting opportunities for the OU, says Dewis, because it helps to widen the university’s geographical reach. “You could have somebody in Asia who is taking a particular interest in a course we’re doing, but could use our materials as the basis for designing a distance learning course, and then add their knowledge to it, and republish it for open access.

“This is almost making our content viral and allowing it to go through lots of different iterations and seeing where it comes out. Hopefully, that will be a huge repository of open access resources that have grown from the basis of OU content but been added to and edited and amended by different educators around the world.”

Universal Appeal

Perhaps it is this global reach of the open courseware movement that offers the most radical challenge to the traditional localized method of delivering education. Some of the OpenCourseware Consortium’s members are experimenting with new models. Universia, for example, is a collaboration between a number of Spanish and Latin American universities, funded by the Bank of Santander.

Its country-specific Web portals, which offer information about higher education, such as available courses and grants, already attract 6 million visitors each month. It was ideally placed, therefore, to provide open courseware, and for the past four years has been translating MIT’s open courseware into Spanish and putting it online. As a result, many of the member universities, says Pedro Aranzadi, Universia’s managing director, saw the benefits of putting their own courseware online, and Universia has just launched 10 open courseware sites supplied by Spanish universities.

At the moment, the open courseware movement seems unstoppable, yet most of the initiatives can only carry on through outside funding. Whether universities or governments will want to continue paying to make course materials widely available once this funding runs out is debatable. Putting courseware online may attract new students to an institution, but then again it may not — and the more universities that get in on the act, the smaller the advantage for any individual institution in doing so.

Kirschner, however, argues that we should be looking at open courseware in a much wider context. Making course materials available to all is, he says, an intrinsic good, whetting people’s appetite for study and ultimately increasing the number of educated people in the population. It may be that we are on the verge of a shift in the way we see learning resources, from something distributed to the privileged few, to something shared by everyone.

“If you’re dealing with a knowledge society, the best thing you can do is make knowledge freely available,” Kirschner says.