Open Courseware: A Survey and Comments

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

On 3 November 2010, on the ETCJ listserv, I shared an email message from Steve Eskow on the subject of “The Open Courseware Movement.” He included a link to D.D. Guttenplan’s article in the NY Times, “For Exposure, Universities Put Courses on the Web” (11.1.10). Steve’s question: “Jim, have we done much with this idea?” Responses from editors and writers followed quickly: Claude Almansi, a few hours later; Jessica Knott, Jan Schwartz, and Robert Plants, early the next morning.

Here’s the full text of Claude’s message (11.3.10 at 11:59 AM). I’m reproducing it here because it’s filled with useful and fascinating links and info:

Thanks, Jim and Steve

On the same theme, about the economics of Open Access publications,
see the US “Compact for Open-Access Publishing Equity – COPE”
<> (<>
for the universities that signed it).

In CH, the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF – only federal
financing entity for scientific research) signed the 2003 Berlin
Declaration on Open Access
<>, and
as a consequence,  has a dossier on Open Access
<> that

“Research sponsored by public funding should be publicly accessible as
far as possible, not least in the interests of science itself. Since
its consultation with the Rectors’ Conference of the Swiss
Universities (CRUS), the SNSF has issued regulations on Open Access
effective as of September 2007 onwards. Scientific publications from
funded projects must be made available through Open Access …”

Of course, MIT’s OCW was the major mover of all this Open Access movement.


PS the reason I have all these refs is that I’m preparing a
presentation of Open Access and CC license at a workshop in Geneva
next week: my slides (so far):

Bob sent another link: Dave Cormier and George Siemens’ “Through the Open Door: Open Courses as Research, Learning, and Engagement” (EDUCAUSE Review, v45n4, July-August 2010: 30-39).

Jan shared Dalton Conley’s “Steal This Education” (Chronicle of Higher Education, 10.31.10). This link will be open for a limited time.

And Jess pointed to Ethan Watrall as an excellent source on open courseware.

I decided to follow-up with a quick 10-question survey of the ETCJ staff and received these responses from Jess, Harry Keller, and John Adsit.

1. How will open courseware impact schools and colleges?

Jessica Knott: We’re already seeing a seismic shift toward open courseware. I don’t think calling it seismic is exaggerating. Look at the growth in the EduPunk movement, as well as the shift in thinking away from Blackboard and ANGEL and toward WordPress and Moodle (and Sakai, but primarily Moodle). Look, also, at ETC Journal!

Harry Keller: No clue as yet.

John Adsit: My thoughts [for all these questions] are limited to the kind of open courseware described in the Times article and others that I have seen. [Re question #1:] In the short term, I don’t see a lot, frankly. I am having trouble seeing a current instructor saying, “OK, here you are in my course, with me as the teacher. Now, log in somewhere else so you can see the lectures of someone better than me.” My long term prognosis is different, as described below.

2. With the possibility of free access to the lectures and lessons of some (many or even all) of the world’s best teachers, will the roles of the majority of teachers change?

Jessica Knott: Hopefully! To a more facilitative role. This could help both teaching and research as well, by freeing up time and shifting focus.

Harry Keller: Too soon to tell.  Will lectures even survive?  How many lectures do you see on TV?

John Adsit: The problem I have with this is the idea of the ideal being the “lectures of the world’s best teachers.” To me, that is like asking how the culinary world will change if it has easy access to the corn dogs made by the world’s best chefs. The world’s best chefs aren’t making corn dogs. The world’s best teachers are not providing instruction via lectures.

3. Since this is all made possible by web tech, will online learning and instruction get a boost from this trend?

Jessica Knott: Boost? Maybe not. Change in format and pedagogical thinking (as well as student expectations and market changes)? Almost certainly.

Harry Keller: Should happen.  But to what extent?

John Adsit: Only to online course creators who don’t know what they are doing. With all the possibilities for excellent instruction that are possible through online education, it is sad to think that people are still looking at lectures as the epitome of instructional design. Good online course design makes lectures unnecessary.

4. Or will this whole open movement slowly fade into nada because free is not sustainable?

Jessica Knott: One could argue that the current educational infrastructure, especially in higher ed, is not sustainable either. I think we’ll see more shift toward open, but perhaps not entirely. A hybrid is more likely.

Harry Keller: Depends on definition of “free.”  Will online courses have advertising in them?

John Adsit: Or rather because with free you are getting what you pay for. Excellent course design is hard to do. The revolution in course design that Clayton Christensen says will overturn education, has noththing to do with lectures, and it cannot be made for free.

5. Is this open courseware really free in the sense that the producers receive zero compensation?

Harry Keller: Some don’t care because they’re subsidized by their institutions and seek recognition (and tenure).

John Adsit: I have no idea.

6. Are we staring into a tomorrow where students will flow through teacherless courses? That is, they’ll navigate their own learning and receive evaluations in novel ways that don’t require teachers.

Jessica Knott: I don’t honestly think so. The facilitation will always be needed, as will the expertise, problem solving assistance and connection. Social media and PLNs may play more of a role, however.

Harry Keller: Many already do (but without independent evaluation).  Learning can be solo after all.  It can also be group as in book clubs.  For most, self-learning is too inefficient; they must have a mentor at least.

John Adsit: When he made his first “teaching machines” in the 1960’s, B.F. Skinner was criticized by those who accused him of trying to replace teachers with machines. He replied that any teacher who CAN be replaced by a machine SHOULD be replaced by a machine. If your idea of teaching is straight dissemination of material, then, yes, you can be replaced easily by a teacherless course. And that’s a good thing. If, on the other hand, you are actually using the art of teaching to reach students and bring them to a high degree of true understanding, then you will be an integral part of a quality online program.

7. What would it take for you to abandon book-based curricula and switch over to open courseware?

Jessica Knott: Not much. I’m a risk taker. Not an early adopter but certainly flexible and experimentative.

Harry Keller: Abandoning book-based curricula is underway in a big way.  Open courseware?  Don’t know.  Courseware need not be open to be effective.  My guess:  it will depend on the course.

John Adsit: You are assuming I am in a book-based curriculum and would move to the kind of open course-ware described here. That is not the case. For me, the question is like asking me what it would take for me to move from a 1960s era car to a 1970s era car. If by open courseware you are instead describing well designed courses with proper peer and student-teacher interaction, with innovative diagnostic software and all the other neat things that online education is capable of producing, then I will jump on it right away.

8. What are the weaknesses of open courseware? Strengths?

Jessica Knott: Weaknesses: Perception of lower quality/value, potential reality of lower quality/value, checks and balances somewhat lacking in comparison to other courseware
Strengths: Cost, flexibility, collabration, exploration

Harry Keller: Same as any open software.

John Adsit: Weakness: What I have seen imitates obsolete instruction and puts it out for free. I have not seen any with strengths—perhaps it exists and I have missed it.

9. Have you been impressed by any of the open courseware that’s out there? If yes, which? If not, why not?

Jessica Knott: My reviews are very mixed, let me take some more time with this question

Harry Keller: Not really evaluating them.

John Adsit: No.

10. Why are teachers and administrators hesitant to embrace open courseware?

Jessica Knott: The same reason they were hesitant to adopt technology.. are they outsourcing themselves? What skill sets do they need that they won’t have? They’re giving away some autonomy/authority, and that can be hard to do. Also, they may feel they’re taking too great a risk with students’ education.

Harry Keller: It’s different.  Uncertainty about quality. Why focus so specifically on OPEN courseware?  Guess it’s a university thing.  May work there.  Interested in seeing full discussion.  I will learn some useful stuff.

John Adsit: Read my thoughts above for one answer.

4 Responses

  1. A fellow named Ian Lynch has begun a program to create completely open and free courses for K-12 students. His business model rests on certification, which would not be free.

    Take his online course for free. If all you’re seeking is learning, then you’re set. If you’d like some sort of certificate that says you accomplished the mastery of this subject, then pay a modest fee for the online assessment that grants you that result.

    Ian is based in England and is working with Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. It’s an interesting business model for using the Internet to deliver education to all, absolutely free. After all, your local school could provide the certification using government-funded teachers.

  2. I teach in an MA program where, after the first three syllabus courses, students design their own advanced learning. I frequently refer them to several of the Open Courseware sites to help with focus, bibliography, research questions. I can’t be an expert in every subject, but I can help them evaluate what other experts have made available and select what will further their chosen educational goals.

    I also have put some lectures from open courses on my syllabus for the Disciplinary Foundations of Literature course. Want to know more about a psychoanalytic approach to literature? Here’s a lecture on it by a professor at Yale. My students have found them incredibly useful.

  3. My MA program was a student designed, self directed program–with a faculty adviser and an assortment of mentors. In addition to suggestions from my adviser and mentors I used open source courses to get ideas about structuring similar courses and for getting resource ideas. I also watched a fair number of lectures I found on iTunes U. This method of learning was really a great experience for me and I would highly recommend it to anyone motivated to learn what they want to know.

  4. I tend to agree with the views of Jess, Judith, and Jan.

    Open courseware (OCW) in the form of lectures via video, audio, or text is a powerful resource for online instruction. Lectures per se are neither good nor bad. What matters most is their quality and how they’re used.

    The fact remains that some lecturers are better than others. When OCW provides quality lectures, then they become invaluable learning resources.

    Electronic and hardcopy books, videos of lectures and other subject matter, web-based text documents, podcasts — these are all sources of information and have a legitimate and valuable role in online courses.

    Eventually, teachers will use informal, cheap videocams to self-capture their lectures from interesting field sites such as museums, laboratories, archeological sites, libraries, their backyard, etc. The lecture hall and podium would be just one of the many options. These will all become part of the OCW pool.

    The use of OCW does not exclude experiential, holistic, project-based, active, student-centered, interactive, collaborative, constructivist approaches. (I hope I’ve included most of the buzzwords.) OCW is simply one of many resources available to teachers and students.

    Educators have always placed a premium on process, on learning how to learn. And as in Jan’s case, this means the 21st century skill of knowing how to tap into the pool of OCW to find gems for one’s specific needs.

    For some students, OCWs could be a primary resource for designing their own “courses” that might serve as equivalents to required courses. Finding and using the best resources for their course objectives would be part of the learning process. Educational advisors (not necessarily teachers) would provide guidance as well as formative and summative evaluations.

    In any case, rather than a throwback to worst practices, OCW offers the prospect of an unprecedented wealth of learning resources that can be used in an infinite number of ways to accomplish a wide range of learning objectives. -Jim S

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