The Next Level of Open Source

Going a step beyond free course materials, Yale will put videos of selected courses online -- available free to anyone.
September 20, 2006

In 2001, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology started placing materials for its courses online -- and making them available for anyone to use, at no cost. OpenCourseWare, which currently contains materials for 1,400 courses, has been a huge success, and thousands of people use the MIT materials each day.

The MIT project and others like it -- such as Connexions, at Rice University -- are based on the model of putting curricular materials online, but not the actual courses (although a few professors at MIT, Rice and elsewhere have put videos of their lectures online).

On Tuesday, Yale University announced that it would be starting a version of an open access online tool for those seeking to gain from its courses. But the basis of the Yale effort will be video of actual courses -- every lecture of the course, to be combined with selected class materials. The money behind the Yale effort is coming from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which was an early backer of MIT's project, and which sees the Yale project as a way to take the open course idea to the next level.

"We want to add another dimension to open courseware," said Catherine Casserly, a program officer at Hewlett. She said that video components used at MIT and elsewhere have been very popular with people all over the world. "We're trying to make that bridge" to the audience for high quality American education, she said. Casserly said that Yale's initiative -- starting with seven courses this year, with plans to grow quickly -- was the first open courseware effort based on lecture videos. "We hope to see this spread to other universities," she said.

Richard Baraniuk, founder of Connexions, said he viewed Yale's announcement as "a very positive development." While projects at Rice and MIT "have been opening up access to educational materials and syllabi, the Yale project is opening up access to even more of the student experience, namely the in-class lecture environment," he said.

Yale officials said that they view that in-class environment as crucial and so wanted to build their open courseware model around it. "Education is built on direct interaction, and face to face is ideal," said Diana E.E. Kleiner, a professor of the history of art and classics who is directing the project. "That's how we intend to teach on our campus, but also recognize that this kind of participation is not always possible, and many around the world could benefit from greater access to this kind of information we provide.

"Universities and colleges are the best keepers of that kind of information in the world, but it can be locked in a kind of vault" because only so many people can attend a given institution, or enroll in a given course, she said.

Kleiner said that Yale officers were "very admiring" of the model built by MIT, and she praised MIT as well for sharing extensive information about how its program was designed. But she said that Yale believes that course lectures "are the core content," and need to be central. "We're following in MIT's footprints, but really taking a new step," she said.

Yale is taping three courses this semester -- all broad introductory classes: Introduction to the Old Testament, Fundamentals of Physics, and Introduction to Political Philosophy. Professors will receive an honorarium for their role in the project and students in New Haven won't notice anything different. The courses won't be online until next year, and Kleiner said that one issue the university needs to figure out before then is how to deal with students who enroll next year and watch the courses online as they are offered again. The university doesn't want these videos to replace the in-class experience, she said. One possibility, she noted from her own experience having her lectures videotaped, is that the faculty members may use the tapes to revise their lectures, so current students may always be getting fresher material and be unable to rely on the online archive.

Another issue Yale needs to explore, she said, was how to handle intellectual property issues when professors use materials in a lecture that they have the right to use in that setting, but for which issues may be raised by broader use.

As MIT has done, Yale intends to make clear that those using the courses can't expect communication with the professors via e-mail or phone calls -- since the faculty members still have their primary responsibilities to those at the university. But Kleiner said that people all over the world could have "a lot of flexibility" in how they used the material. An individual could watch the lectures and read the books on the available syllabus. A college in a developing nation could build its own course around the Yale online lectures -- and as long as that institution makes clear the source of the material, Yale welcomes that use. "We're putting this out there to see what happens. What others do with it will be up to them," she said.

Yale anticipates moving fairly quickly to having several dozen courses online.

A number of experts who have tracked the spread of the open courseware idea said that the Yale development could be quite significant. Ira H. Fuchs, vice president for research in information technology for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation -- another key backer of open courseware efforts -- said that what Yale announced made "perfect sense" as the next step in sharing universities' content.

Others noted that there could be distinct advantages for many institutions to pursue this model. John Unsworth, dean of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said he thinks there has been "great benefit" from MIT making its materials available free. But he said of the video approach for lectures: "That's the most interesting stuff."

Beyond sharing knowledge, Unsworth noted, universities that put course materials or lectures online free benefit from "great PR and marketing," especially if they are institutions that don't enjoy the name recognition of MIT or Yale. Unsworth said he thought this approach might have particular appeal down the road for public universities. "It's not always easy for the public to see directly what the tax dollars are producing," he said. "This model could be an important form of outreach to the citizens of a state."


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