Open Questions on Open Courseware

While experts focus on paying for the projects, Eric Jansson wonders if they need to be rethought to reflect trends in teaching and technology.

July 7, 2011

Sustainability of digital projects is in the news again. The announcement that the National Science Digital Library, or NSDL, will be de-funded in 2012 serves as the latest reminder of the difficulties of sustaining large-scale efforts to aggregate and publish digital academic content. That the NSDL will lose funding in the midst of a recognized crisis in STEM instruction makes the warning that much more clear.

Higher education’s flagship, grassroots initiative to aggregate and publish high-quality teaching resources is looking vulnerable, too. I refer here to open courseware initiatives: efforts to digitize and publish online the academic output of a number of our elite research universities. Collectively, these initiatives are higher education’s principal homegrown variety of open educational resources, or OER. It is tempting to make mission-centric arguments in support of open courseware, arguing that these projects merit ongoing institutional subsidies. But that debate disguises the more fundamental question of whether open courseware as currently practiced integrates what we know about the capabilities of digital curriculums to integrate learning theory and support online learners.

Open courseware projects, such as OpenCourseWare at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are unquestionably generous commitments to the cause of expanding access, equalizing opportunity, and working together to build a better higher education system. To some, however, those efforts seem too generous. Accordingly, much of the commentary over the past year on these projects in the education community follows the financial struggles of such projects, which exist only by virtue of ongoing institutional subsidies with uncertain value circulating back to the subsidizing institution. In a time when state appropriations and charitable support are weak, we tend to focus -- as with coverage of an Ithaka S+R study profiled in this same venue -- on whether a viable business model exists or whether such an economic justification is needed at all.

There is another open question on open courseware beyond the question of if and how you finance a rich open curriculum. That question is what forms such open curriculums should take, particularly curriculums we expect to be delivered over a network and integrated into self-teaching or hybrid (part online, part classroom) learning models, or at least models with less access to the support resources that characterize the institutions creating these materials.

Most open courseware initiatives have avoided that question in their early years by adopting an archival strategy: capture as much course content as possible in as native a format as possible, and place those artifacts online in an archival structure. Presumably, individual visitors to open courseware can reconstruct individual courses by going through these artifacts, or third parties can select and aggregate these materials into packages; some, the theory goes, may even add value such as assessment or course credit.

The data that are available to gauge how well open courseware has served other communities of learners are inconclusive and even contested. MIT’s last substantive effort to defend its OpenCourseWare initiative based on statistics (“MIT OpenCourseWare 2005 Program Evaluation Findings”) paints a picture of strong growth, but others read the figures differently. Newer statistics, which MIT publish monthly, show continuing incremental growth, but do not clarify if and how these resources help meet the goal of expanding learning globally. Similarly, a project called Connexions, which aggregates digital curricular materials across universities, boasts almost 19 million visitors over the past year, but tying that statistic to outcomes is difficult. Even the Hewlett Foundation, a key supporter of these efforts, concluded in a 2009 memo: "while high-quality content is now openly accessible, evidence is needed of its impact."

Emerging Best Practices

Given the limitations of statistical evidence to date, we are mostly left analyzing the qualitative features of open courseware to understand potential impact. But here again we are on shaky ground: open courseware in most of its manifestations does not provide the features that are emerging as best practices in online curriculums, whether the curriculum accompanies in-person teaching and learning models or is used strictly online. Open courseware’s applicability to both audiences is important, especially as online and offline models begin to blend into so-called “hybrid” models with the classroom and lecture moving some responsibility for information transmittal to online media while taking on new roles, such as increasing time for tutoring, class discussion, or project-based learning.

So what are emerging best practices and trends as curriculum goes digital and moves online?

First, there is the obvious integration of interactivity and media. Anyone who has held an iPad quickly realizes that as simple an act as reading is taking on new dimensions of interaction and expression. Digital curriculum platforms provide a highly malleable foundation. We touch, listen, talk, and perform a variety of other interactions that were previously unavailable to us. In addition, simulations increase engagement by helping students envision course content situated in more authentic contexts.

Second, the building blocks of curriculum are evolving as new delivery methods become available. New adaptive learning systems that use ongoing formative assessment, for example, are able to detect the absence of prior knowledge and redirect a student back to prior missing knowledge. In order to function, such a curriculum also includes new kinds of data establishing relationships among content modules and learning standards.

Likewise, new portable computing devices and robust network infrastructures are creating new contexts for learning, and these will affect the design of curricular building blocks. Mobile learning in an environment of ubiquitous wireless will help undergraduates squeeze in a physics review session over a half-hour gap between classes, or serve materials to adult learners during a lunch break.

There are also social elements of curriculum: learning using digital curriculums increasingly makes use of social contexts, such as students sharing comments and notes online, sometimes in ways directly connected to course texts (think YouTube or Facebook comment streams). Other digital curricula integrate features of multiplayer gaming, such as recognizing high performance among peers.

Last, there are the unknowns: the things we do not yet know are possible, but that innovations and new technologies will enable.

The Lecture as Technology

Software will not replace educational institutions, but, as many have recognized, it will help restructure how we use classroom or other in-person time with faculty and peers, and how we use out-of-classroom time. The goal is not to reduce contact with peers and experts, but to ensure that we maximize the impacts of those valuable resources.

Or more succinctly: given our technological capabilities, why would we reinvent the lecture online? It is not that the lecture is not useful -- indeed, the best lectures are high art. But the format is itself a delivery technology with limitations we can now in some ways overcome. To archive video lectures online and aggregate those alongside other course materials is to some extent to confuse form and substance. In this day and age, when we can design individual experiences, let’s choose to do that.

Among the Open Courseware initiatives, Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative’s (OLI) attention to understanding and supporting online learning stands out. That project distinguishes itself through its support for features supporting self-guided learning. It includes formative assessment built in to the online texts, integrated multimedia simulations, tracking of learner’s progress, and other features tailored to specific course topics. It is no surprise to see that project develop (with Gates, Lumina and Hewlett support) into the Community College Open Learning Initiative (CC-OLI). Hopefully, we will see the new investments from the Gates Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education continue work in that direction.

Projects that move in the directions suggested by the CC-OLI are of course likely even more expensive to develop than those that follow current Open Courseware models. This raises the question of how we finance efforts even more expensive than those whose funding is currently being debated. While the long-term answer is unclear (consortial efforts? copying the organizational models of open source software projects?) one key is that more advanced systems should provide better data on learning outcomes through user tracking and user assessment data. The problem, in other words, is not just that we lack funding at present, but that we lack demonstrations of value.

Reaching the World

The “openness” of open courseware -- as a cultural and institutional value -- is an achievement whose importance we should not understate. But the practice of open courseware does not recognize adequately what is often hailed as the principal goal of the movement: to expand global access to high-quality education. As the OpenCourseWare Consortium says in their “Our Vision” statement: “We envision a world in which the desire to learn is fully met by the opportunity to do so anywhere in the world — where everyone, everywhere is able to access affordable, educationally and culturally appropriate opportunities to gain whatever knowledge or training they desire.”

The need to consider format and delivery systems -- beyond instituting openness as a set of cultural norms and processes in higher education -- is clearly an important challenge. As UNESCO put it in their 2009 white paper Guide to Measuring Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in Education states: "The demand for higher education cannot be met in both the developed and developing world without distance or virtual modes of learning.”

The current open courseware model is a foundation to build upon, and hopefully we will find the funding to refine and continue these efforts. But to establish global reach we also need to make different investments. The current open question on open courseware is how we can adapt these resources to the needs of online learners, who need such resources the most.


Eric Jansson is an affiliated fellow with the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE) and member of its advisory board.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top