President Obama’s original plan for community colleges included $500 million to create free online courses  that individual institutions could then customize for their students. That money never materialized  — it was left out of the student aid legislation in last month’s health care bill.
But a foundation-supported effort with similar goals is actually growing. The National Repository for Online Courses  (NROC) was hoping for that government money to help expand its existing vault of free courses, says Gary Lopez, the repository's director. Still, with online education becoming mainstream and many community colleges experiencing enrollment booms beyond their physical capacity, NROC’s membership is on the rise. At the same time, the repository's reliance on membership fees calls into question how "free" its courses actually are.
Since 2006 — when the nonprofit started buying online courses, redesigning them, and providing them to its members — the number of higher ed institutions using course materials from the repository has grown from 10 to 200. While the majority of its content is aimed at middle- and high-school students, Lopez says that community and technical college patrons now make up about a third of its users.
The repository, which initially bought its courses from the University of California’s vault of preparatory courses , is also beginning to invest in developing its own courses with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Responding to requests from its members, it is currently building a four-course developmental math sequence, which is designed to assess the abilities of students in real time, and adapt when certain skills need reinforcing — a popular feature of some commercial e-learning programs aimed at a similar audience.
A Textbook Alternative?
Karen Kaemmerling, a history instructor for Colorado Community Colleges Online who now writes a history blog for NROC, says she thinks the repository’s move toward more sophisticated uses of media and diagnostic tools could put pressure on commercial publishers, who may see some community and technical college instructors eschew their textbooks and supplementary e-learning tools in favor of the “free” resources available through HippoCampus , NROC’s e-learning portal.
“From experience, what I can tell you about publisher material vs. NROC material is NROC material is far and above more usable for students, more concise, and just offers more user-friendly lessons,” says Kaemmerling, who stopped assigning textbooks to her U.S. history class years ago.
Sandy Cook, director of distance learning technologies for the Kentucky Community and Technical Colleges System, says her system is moving toward a new virtual learning curriculum that would drop textbooks in favor of a mix of NROC materials and commercial e-learning tools from Pearson. Cook says that the repository’s materials are equal in quality to the programs the system currently purchases from publishing giant, and that if NROC is able to take the new diagnostic tools it is making for its developmental math sequence and apply them to its other courses, it would be "the complete package." (Pearson had no comment on NROC as a potential competitor.)
(Update, 4/29: An earlier version of this article mistakenly said Sandy Cook is the director of academic affairs. It also contained a paraphrase of Cook's comments to which she objected. The relevant passage has been revised.)
The Cost of Free
Then again, there is a question as to whether NROC should actually be considered among what are known in online education as “OERs,” or open educational resources. While they are free to independent learners, NROC courses are not free to institutions — or, in at least one case, to the students who take them through an institution.
The most famous members of this family of “open-access” course materials — such as MIT’s OpenCourseware, Yale Open Courses, and Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative — provide syllabuses, video lectures, worksheets, and other course materials completely free of charge, to anyone no strings attached.
NROC is more proprietary about its content . Individuals can sign into the HippoCampus and take the courses for free. But if an institution or system wants to deploy the repository’s content at scale, they have to pay an enrollment-based “membership” fee, which can run from $3,000 to $50,000 per year (although the higher range generally applies to state education systems, not single institutions). If an institution or system wants to host the content on its own learning-management systems, it can cost more.
In some cases, institutions pass this cost on to students, eliminating the “free” factor altogether. Colorado Community College Online, for example, charges its students a $49-per-course digital content fee  to help cover the NROC membership and other infrastructure costs — as much as many e-books and some used textbooks.
Then again, NROC, which was built on grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, is on the brink of achieving self-sufficiency — something most OER projects can only dream of. Lopez says the repository is about 80 percent of the way toward its sustainability goal, and was on track to reach it this year before the financial crisis hit, slowing growth and prompting NROC to excuse a number of cash-strapped patrons from paying last year’s membership fees.
“That’s been a bane of a lot of [open-access] projects, the grant funding runs out and they either slow down or hibernate because they didn’t have a real business model to sustain the grant,” says David Wiley, associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University.
“I think a lot of other OER projects feel like if educational institutions or anyone else want to pick up their materials and use them, that’s well within the scope of their service to the public,” Wiley says. “[NROC’s model] is a very different approach from the other organizations in this cohort. But Gary’s is the only one that’s running in the black, too.”
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