For those inclined to dig through university Web sites, it's long been possible to browse scattered lecture notes and PowerPoint slides intended for enrolled students. A handful of colleges intentionally make course materials available to anyone with an Internet connection, and now a major name may redefine expectations for online learning. Following its announcement last year , Yale University on Tuesday launched its free, online archive of popular undergraduate courses -- including not only syllabi, problem sets and course materials, but videos and audio files of the lectures themselves.
Dubbed Open Yale Courses , the Web site's creators hope the archive will serve as a resource for students abroad or even as support for lecturers at other institutions who need to supplement their own material. In the spirit of keeping information freely available, the lectures are protected under a Creative Commons legal license that allows users to download, share and remix the material in any way they see fit, as long as their purposes aren't commercial and they credit Yale.
Supported by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the site currently features seven courses, with plans to add at least 30 more over the next few years.
"Information technology allows the knowledge and passion of leading Yale faculty to reach everyone who wishes to explore these subjects," said President Richard C. Levin in a statement. "We hope students, teachers and anyone with an interest in these topics, no matter where they live or what they do, will take full advantage of these free and easily accessed courses."
Yale isn't the first university to offer course material online. The Hewlett Foundation has also backed efforts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology  as well as a broader archive, the OER Commons , which serves as an open-source course repository for instructors at all levels. MIT's OpenCourseWare  site, launched in 2001, currently offers some 1,800 courses, and while a growing fraction of its offerings also feature some video content, a majority are mainly text, slides and assignments. Rice University, too, operates a similar site called Connexions  that opens the back door to content creators and allows resources to be consumed in small chunks.
While it isn't the first such effort out of the gate, Open Yale Courses is unique in its focus on video as a main draw. The lecturers chosen for the initial batch of courses agreed to have their classes videotaped, and one noticeable difference from a normal in-person session is the conspicuous microphone clipped to each professor's shirt.
“I think after a couple of days, we sort of forgot about [the videographers],” said Ramamurti Shankar, the John Randolph Huffman Professor of Physics.
For his Fundamentals of Physics course , the site offers an index to each session as well as a syllabus. Lecture 1, on Newtonian mechanics, includes an mp3 file of the audio, streaming video in several formats, a transcript, a problem set (with solutions) and even a course survey. The entire course can also be downloaded at once, with individual audio and video files available for playback on iPods or other devices.
Unlike the static cameras and uneven quality of lectures on the University of California at Berkeley's YouTube portal , for example, Yale's appear professionally produced. Shankar, for one, says he can't imagine his course being useful on the Web without the accompanying video. “In physics, you write all the equations on the blackboard ... you talk a bit and you write a bit.... You need the camera to show the board all the time,” he said.
The six other courses being offered so far are Frontiers and Controversies in Astrophysics, Modern Poetry, Death (Philosophy 176), Introduction to Political Philosophy, Introduction to Psychology and Introduction to the Old Testament. Besides their popularity and general introductory nature, Shankar suggested that Yale initially chose courses taught by experienced or award-winning lecturers -- those who would best represent the university off campus and online.
The idea behind posting the courses is for users to experience a lecture as it would be without a camera present, so videos appear unedited and transcripts contain any number of starts and mistakes. Or, to put it another way: "You don’t have a film of someone producing a lecture for a film," said Langdon Hammer, the chairman of Yale's Department of English, who teaches the Modern Poetry course taped for the site last spring.
So while professors didn't fundamentally alter course material for the cameras, they were in some cases required to make additional preparations to avoid any legal issues. Some texts and quotes given in lectures may, after all, be someone else's copyrighted work not authorized for digital distribution. For the poetry course, Hammer said the university "painstakingly" obtained permission from publishers of works not in the public domain -- including poems read aloud during class. In several instances, photographs or paintings he passed out couldn't be reproduced for the video because of copyright complications.
For Fundamentals of Physics last fall, Shankar couldn't use problems from most standard textbooks for copyright reasons, so he found himself creating new ones specifically for the course's exams and lectures. In return for their participation -- and in some cases, perhaps, the extra trouble -- the professors receive a small honorarium.
Some have questioned whether the easy availability of course lectures might lead to lower attendance back at Yale, but Shankar and Hammer seem to have found a novel solution. “I will never teach this course again,” said Shankar, who is on sabbatical, adding that someone else would have to teach the course in future semesters. "I don’t know another way to do it."
For similar reasons, Hammer said he will take a break from teaching the modern poetry course. If he returns to the course, Hammer said, he'll find a way to approach it differently. One possibility he's considering is to incorporate the recorded lectures into the curriculum by, for example, having students read or watch the lectures beforehand and using class time for more detailed discussions.
But Yale has big ideas for students far from campus. It plans to transmit the courses by satellite to universities in India and to broadcast lectures on China Education Television. Individual faculty members at institutions in other countries -- including Bahrain, Argentina and Japan -- have also agreed to include some of the lectures in their own classes.
The university also plans on making its course resources available in libraries abroad through the State Department's American Corners program, and to advise college counselors in the Middle East to use the materials when encouraging students to apply to American universities.
Shankar says he hopes students in countries that don't necessarily encourage dissent in the classroom will use the videos to learn to challenge their professors if necessary. He also suggested that talented high school students could boost their own learning, especially in environments with substandard class offerings in physics.
Hammer said he and his colleagues "undertake this project uncertain about what direction it will take, but in a kind of open spirit that making the education that’s provided at Yale as widely available as possible is part of the mission of education, and that it will take us in so many directions that we can’t necessarily anticipate."