Online Courseware's Existential Moment

Historically, universities such as Columbia, Oxford, Yale, Princeton and Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have defined their value by exclusivity as much as by excellence. The institutions positioned themselves as purveyors of an important public good — a corps of graduates fit to run a nation — but the classrooms and curriculums that ostensibly transform talented high-schoolers into cardholding members of the adult elite have been walled off from the general public.

February 3, 2011

Historically, universities such as Columbia, Oxford, Yale, Princeton and Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have defined their value by exclusivity as much as by excellence. The institutions positioned themselves as purveyors of an important public good — a corps of graduates fit to run a nation — but the classrooms and curriculums that ostensibly transform talented high-schoolers into cardholding members of the adult elite have been walled off from the general public.

In the Internet age, walls are everywhere falling in academe. Online education, all but cleansed of its original stigma, has become commonplace. This is especially true among big public universities, which have clamored to capitalize on new markets by enrolling far-flung students. The University of Massachusetts and Penn State University rake in tens of millions of dollars each year from their online programs. The University of California is considering using online education to help recoup the revenue lost to massive cuts in state funding.

But at elite private universities, the online revolution has unfolded differently. At first, several top institutions tried selling their course materials online through websites such as Fathom and AllLearn, but stopped upon discovering that not many people were willing to pay for online courses that did not lead to a diploma. Faced with the choice of either offering degrees online at a price or giving away courses for free, the elites took the road less traveled: they would publish the raw materials — and in some cases videotaped lectures — for certain courses on the Web, but would not offer online pathways for their coveted degrees.

Has it made a difference? And where does that unmarked road lead, anyway? Those questions lie at the heart of Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities Are Opening Up Access to Their Courses (Princeton University Press), a new book by Taylor Walsh.

On the one hand, hundreds of millions of non-enrolled visitors, from nearly every country, have availed themselves of free online courseware from top American universities, explains Walsh, a research analyst at Ithaka S+R. Some are professors at foreign universities looking to model their own curriculums on the best of the West. In this light, free online courseware might be seen as a game-changing effort to level the playing field of international higher education.

On the other hand, absent the measures inherent to actual, degree-granting programs, there is no way to tell how much actual learning these expensive projects are creating. “If you take away OCW completely,” said Ira Fuchs, former vice president at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, of MIT’s celebrated OpenCourseWare project, “I’m not sure that higher education would be noticeably different.” In that light, free online courseware might seem little more than noblesse oblige of a sort that is, not coincidentally, a boon to elite universities’ overseas branding and recruiting efforts.

In Unlocking the Gates, Walsh profiles current online courseware projects at MIT, Yale, Carnegie Mellon, the University of California at Berkeley, and India’s National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning. She also reviews the cautionary tales of Fathom and AllLearn, the profit-seeking harbingers of the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement, and thus lays out the conundrum facing their nominally successful offspring: As pressure mounts on online courseware projects to demonstrate their value and/or become self-supporting, will the world's premier universities be able to stay above the fray of online degree programs and pay-to-play course materials? Can they afford to stay pure, righteous, and unaccountable?

Inside Higher Ed recently caught up with Walsh to explore these questions and others. The interview was conducted asynchronously and online; Walsh received no money, and Inside Higher Ed received no academic credit.

Q: Elite universities like to bill their free online courseware as a gift to the world. But one of your themes in Unlocking the Gates is the incredible strategic benefits of such projects in crucial overseas markets. Among top U.S. institutions, are open educational resources as much about international branding as altruism?

A: You’re right that raising their global profiles has certainly been one strategic benefit that some participating institutions have garnered from their open courseware efforts. Yale in particular comes to mind as a university that is unabashedly invested in expanding its global reach, and the Open Yale Courses (OYC) project can be understood as a tool to aid in that effort. But international branding is only one internal benefit that parent universities have derived from the development of open courseware. Though often designed primarily for external audiences, these projects have also made an impact closer to home, aiding efforts to improve alumni relations, recruit prospective students, and provide a welcome study aid (and a kind of enhanced course catalog) for the university’s enrolled student population.

It is also important to note that not all participating universities have leveraged their online courseware projects to the same degree. The impact an initiative has on public perceptions of its parent university can be linked to the extent of institutional branding on the site. The OYC site makes extensive use of the Yale name, logo, and even colors, rendering the site’s institutional affiliation unambiguous — so good press for OYC is good press for Yale. In contrast, Carnegie Mellon has consciously elected not to use the university’s name in that of its open courseware effort (called simply the “Open Learning Initiative”), perhaps missing an opportunity to indelibly align the host university with the positive attention that its courseware program has received.

Q: How important to the future of OER projects is the development of measures for finding out how much students are learning from free online course materials?

A: Your question raises the issue of assessment here, which poses a critical challenge to the open courseware community. For free and open resources that consist exclusively of published lecture materials, web analytics data can indicate how much traffic a site receives and from where -- but anecdotal feedback or voluntary survey participation have so far been the only means of gauging whether users find this material meaningful.

But if the goal of an open courseware effort is to truly encourage student learning at a distance, assessment is crucial. That’s what makes the Open Learning Initiative so compelling: this Carnegie Mellon-led effort embeds assessment mechanisms within the online course environment itself, such that the system is always collecting data on student learning to feed back to the course developers. Yet the OLI’s approach to courseware design is incredibly costly, and has required that courses are totally redesigned for web-based delivery — a process that not all universities will be able or willing to undertake.

Q: You write about how anxieties over profitability helped sink early attempts by elite universities to publish their course content online. You also show how the current projects owe their success largely to their willful avoidance of moneymaking business models. But the sustainability issue is now very real for each of the projects you profile. Which do you think is the most vulnerable to dwindling financial support from its original bankrollers, and which is the least vulnerable?

A: I think it’s not a question of choosing a winner or loser, but rather of understanding how each of these programs will adapt to changing circumstances. Many of the initiatives profiled in Unlocking the Gates were launched using outside foundation money (MIT OpenCourseWare, Open Yale Courses, and Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative), and project leaders were always aware of the temporary nature of that funding — it was for start-up purposes only, not continuing operations. Now that those initial grants have been spent, these initiatives have already begun to adapt in a variety of ways. Some projects have redoubled their efforts to secure internal support from their host institutions; for instance, MIT’s general Institute budget has been supporting half of OCW’s annual operating costs for years, based in part on the conviction that the program is sufficiently embedded in the life of the university as to merit ongoing support. The OLI, on the other hand, has continued to seek and receive outside grants from a range of foundations, shifting the focus of its course development away from core Carnegie Mellon courses and toward courses aimed at a community college population, aligning itself with the new direction of funders’ priorities.

Q: Projects such as the MIT OpenCourseWare are often credited with providing curricular building blocks for foreign universities. But the president of Saint Michael’s College last year told me that he has considered encouraging his faculty to adopt online courseware from places like MIT and Yale. How likely is it that we’ll see faculty at mid-tier U.S. liberal arts colleges adopting online courseware from top institutions?

A: That’s a great question. One significant strength of liberal arts colleges has traditionally been their focused attention on high-quality undergraduate education, and it will be fascinating to see whether there are ways to incorporate new technologies into this kind of highly personalized instruction. It is certainly possible to imagine the use of courseware resources to supplement — or even supplant — the role of the textbook in certain introductory courses. But it remains to be seen whether large numbers of liberal arts colleges will choose to structure some of their teaching around a core lecture series developed elsewhere. This kind of cross-institutional sharing would require that the users overcome any “not invented here” bias that might dissuade them from adopting another professor’s courseware.

Q: Webcast.berkeley offers an interesting example of a high-profile OER project that grew up without huge angel investments or any particular model in mind. With technology such as lecture capture and iTunes U. becoming more popular, are we going to see a boom in “grassroots” OER projects?

A: I think that boom has already happened. Over 350 colleges and universities from around the world are now participating in iTunes U, over 75 maintain their own dedicated channels on YouTube EDU — and these figures are only continuing to climb.

With so much open content being created and shared through a variety of outlets, this is a very exciting time for online learning. But one of the challenges raised by this growing corpus of available lecture materials is that of demonstrating the value or impact of each new offering. In this next phase of development, the open courseware community — whose ranks are growing nearly every day — may have to grapple with difficult questions like: Do we really need yet another recording of Economics 101? And if so, how do we distinguish our version from all the others?

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