Is the Sky Falling for OCW?

12 Oct

In this just released article in The Chronicle of Higher Education writer Marc Parry laments that open courses at universities such as MIT and Yale may soon be a thing of the past due to economics.

Colleges, too, are grappling with the limits of this global online movement. Enthusiasts think open courses have the potential to uplift a nation of Zieglers by helping them piece together cheaper degrees from multiple institutions. But some worry that universities’ projects may stall, because the recession and disappearing grant money are forcing colleges to confront a difficult question: What business model can support the high cost of giving away your “free” content?

Parry later goes on to quote David Wiley and his blogged prediction of the future:

The education oracle [Wiley] offers another prophecy for open courseware. ‘Every OCW initiative at a university that does not offer distance courses for credit,’ he has blogged, ‘will be dead by the end of calendar 2012.’

As a fledgling in the open education movement, even I have wondered how this movement could be sustained:

…while it may be a wonderfully Utopian idea to provide free access to all knowledge, the producers of said knowledge (i.e. book writers, course creators, instructors, researchers, etc.,) all also need to eat and pay bills – how does the “business” survive, if they give the “product” away for free?

Is open education dead even as it becomes  mainstream?  Will it become a different entity altogether, perhaps a far cry from the one its early forefather’s imagined, but something that still provides learning to the masses – freely?  How will the international open education movement shape the US policy and vice versa?

I’d love to know your opinions.


Posted by on October 12, 2009 in The Plan


Tags: , , ,

4 responses to “Is the Sky Falling for OCW?

  1. joseph thibault

    October 13, 2009 at 8:49 am

    I agree that it takes a lot of time and effort, especially at the level that MIT and some others do it. But I don’t think the article encompasses the full movement. Some OCW is simply content that already exists and needs to be opened/indexed (there is relatively zero cost attributed to that type of open content).

    I see the point about up to the minute lecture materials, etc. But technology is getting much simpler and easier even to regularly publish that content. Just look at the project Matterhorn Opencast. It’s designed to offset the problems that arise with OER management and production.

    So I tend to disagree with the Chronicle’s take on OER. As smaller and smaller institutions start to jump on board (and individuals as well) and indexing/submitting the materials becomes automatic, the overall amount of content in OER isn’t going down, but up. Drastically.

    @Stuart, love the educational napster idea.

  2. Parag Shah

    October 13, 2009 at 2:22 am

    This is a very good discussion.

    One way for open courseware to benefit the sponsoring university is by using it in subsequent courses. So for example, Stanford’s course on Java programming has been published as OCW. Now when this course is offered again, the professor can ask his students to view the videos before the class, and utilize class time purely for discussions, and problem solving. This can raise the bar of teaching, and free up the professor’s time for doing more research (and perhaps getting more funds for the uni)

    Universities could create a testing infrastructure around the OCW they publish. This will enable independent learners to study on their own and then appear for a test if they want credentials. These tests can be administered for a fee thus generating revenue from the use of their OCW.

    We have to keep in mind that the cost related with OCW is only production costs. They can be hosted on YOUTube, or other free video sharing services. As @Stuart suggested, this cost can also be bought down by allowing students to film the classes and put them up online (I am not sure what legal issues need to be dealt with to enable this). If this can be done, then production costs can also be reduced.

  3. Stuart Shaw

    October 12, 2009 at 9:45 pm

    This is a valid point. The reason why MIT and here in the UK the OU published their ‘crown jewels’ was that they were paid to do so. Yes, paid. Once the grants ran out though, the wheels either got unstuck by sponsors (MIT can get these in its sleep, but try that at a lesser branded Uni and see what happens) or started to stick. You see, the cost ($20,000 per course on average) is not in the recording or the editing or the publishing or even in the servers – they will all end up on iTunesU now anyway. The cost has always been the time it takes to clear copyright with the big serials. Unless these guys give a bit, it will be too costly for non-grant enabled higher eds to get in on the movement. My suggestion has always been to get the students to do it. They film their own courses and share them together as study aids. But this means the Uni giving in as well as the serials, and that won’t happpen on its own. But think about it like this: if every student filmed their courses and shared them freely like music downloads, who is going to be stupid enough to stop them? We need an education Napster.

    One last point. Why don’t Universities stream live courses, with accreditation, for a small subscription fees? The courseware is ‘private’ until the copyright is cleared and the courses are finished, then they are released as OCW?

    Anyway, it’s a great debate with lots of heavyweights getting in on the action, a list of the big names and big articles ive collected on PsychFutures is you’re interested:

  4. Chris Gbekorbu

    October 12, 2009 at 11:51 am

    It’s definitely a complex issue, and what I have here doesn’t really answer your questions. Nevertheless.

    A lot of the basic information is already freely available through search engines, and a portion of all the research that’s done is already publicly funded and so should be made freely available since the public has paid for it. Furthermore, a large part of the cost of creating content could be offset by reducing all of the duplicated effort that goes into creating content in the first place (i.e., aside from some localization, is there much difference between the content of a course taught in Paris and one taught in Auckland?) Add to that the fact that the cost of reproducing material is essentially free (all one really needs is a video camera/voice recorder and some software that can be had for free), and the only real cost involved is the content creator’s time to create the materials. So really, cost shouldn’t be an issue and the content could be publicly funded/subsidized.

    In terms of content, universities themselves don’t really add much value (lab work in the sciences and engineering may be the exception). Where universities do add value (and should be focusing their efforts) is in the accreditation and the ability that students (and professors) have to [better] network with others.


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