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Open Sesame

June 4, 2010



In the OpenCourseWare movement, the future of learning is on your laptop.


Among the topics Bill Gates discussed in his foundation's annual letter was one that aligns well with the interests of the former Microsoft CEO: online learning. In addition to funding efforts to develop better vaccines, eradicate HIV/AIDS, and improve agriculture in the developing world, Gates is also keen on opening up the world of education to anyone who wants to learn.

"Most of us have had a teacher whose lectures made a subject seem fascinating even though we didn't expect that it would be," he wrote in the letter. "Now that finding and watching videos is a standard part of the internet experience, we can put great teachers' lectures online."

Thanks to a movement that began a decade ago, it's already happening-called OpenCourseWare, it intends to democratize learning by putting syllabi, lecture notes, exams, homework assignments, and, yes, even lectures from university professors, online so that anyone can access them for free. Among the prominent institutions lending their hefty credibility to this practice is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is at the vanguard of the movement and, about four years ago, became the first school to post its entire curriculum online.

"It's kind of removing the veil from what goes on at most colleges," says Mary Lou Forward, executive director of the OpenCourseWare Consortium. The consortium now includes roughly 100 different OCW sites among its 250 members and 13,000 courses are available online. (That figure reflects more than double the number of courses available only two years ago.) MIT's offerings are considered among the most comprehensive, whereas Stanford University has succeeded in collecting an extensive archive of past lectures.

The movement works on the "Field of Dreams" principle-"if you build it, they will come." But it's difficult to determine what people are actually coming for, since the sites are free and mostly don't require registration. That's why MIT decided to survey the visitors to its OCW site, which receives about 1 million page views per month. MIT found that half of the users are self-learners looking to gain knowledge on a particular subject area, about a third are students who want to complement their existing coursework, and the rest are educators who primarily want to deepen their understanding of a given field.

"A lot of institutions are putting up what they see as their strengths," says Forward, allowing them to make connections with far-flung colleagues. Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, for example, posted many of its courses related to water management, which a group of engineers in Indonesia happened upon. The two teams are now tailoring a water management program focused on the needs of Southeast Asia using Delft's know-how. "Traditionally, when universities wanted to make these connections, they had to go through different networks or send people to conferences," Forward explains. "Now you've streamlined that beginning step."

But in disciplines that tend to be less collaborative by nature, the adoption of OCW has occurred at a slower pace. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that the movement has its roots at a strong technical and engineering school, the hard sciences dominate the scene. The liberal arts, meanwhile, are still lagging far behind. Joey King, executive director of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, says that part of the issue is that liberal arts professors, who pride themselves on their particular take on a subject and the classroom environment they create, want ownership over their courses.

Arts-related OCW also raises interesting intellectual property issues. "Those are disciplines that traditionally rely on primary-source material-beyond the most introductory courses, most humanities courses don't use textbooks," says King. "It's a different style." Putting lecture materials from those classes, which could include extensive book excerpts, film snippets, or whole poems, could create some rights issues for schools, he adds.

OCW is largely covered by the doctrine of fair use, which allows for the repurposing of copyrighted material, as long as the reuse doesn't infringe on the original work-by, say, replacing the original in the marketplace, as bootlegged movies do. If a professor uses a film clip for educational purposes, and doesn't use more of the film then is needed to make a point, Corynne McSherry, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, believes they'll be protected by fair use laws.

McSherry adds that if institutions are proactive and are careful to use best practices, intellectual property will not be an issue. "The arguments for OpenCourseWare are so strong and powerful, it would surprise me if traditional publishers-even if they did have a problem with it-would really want to go after OpenCourseWare directly," she explains.

As more material finds its way online, OpenCourseWare could eventually become well-trafficked resources-not unlike Wikipedia. Sites like Academic Earth, which is funded by the Gates Foundation, are already collecting some of the best lectures available online from top schools. Third-party businesses could pop up to help online learners find courses that are appropriate for them and, perhaps, one day, online learners could even earn credit for the classes they take using the material.

What follows is the next frontier in the OpenCourseWare movement-and the lynchpin to its success-accreditation. "Our challenge is what's the added value for the learner? What pathways to credit might there be?" says Forward, who directs OCW Consortium. "Those conversations are happening. There's not agreement-let me be clear on that-but those conversations are happening."

Illustration by Parliament of Owls.









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