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Knowledge at No Cost


by Howard Feintuch

When American Megan Brewster first moved abroad, she noticed that her new hometown was littered with empty plastic water bottles.

A recent graduate of the University of Washington with a bachelor’s degree in material science, Brewster was in Guatemala working for an environmental nonprofit company. Each day she saw tourists discarding their empty water bottles on the sidewalks and curbs, further adding to a plastic clutter that seemed to be everywhere.

Guatemala had no formal recycling program, so Brewster set out to find a practical method by which plastics could be recycled into useable products. She visited the online OpenCourseWare (OCW) program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which provided open access to course materials for a large number of MIT classes, and found what she was looking for: a Material Processing Laboratory class. From this resource, she was able to formulate and implement a complete protocol to tackle Guatemala’s need for a plastics recycling system.

OCW’s formal roots began in the United States when MIT launched its OCW site in 2002 with 50 offerings. Since the fall of 2007, MIT has had 1,800 courses available. By 2004, MIT administrators were being regularly contacted by other university administrators wanting insights on how to develop OCW programs of their own.

The OpenCourseWare Consortium, a global network of universities with OCW programs, defines OpenCourseWare as, “free and open digital publication of high quality education materials, organized as a course.” Users, who do not receive credit and are usually anonymously logged in, are students looking to enhance personal knowledge, educators or self-learners, says Steve Carson, external relations director for MIT’s OCW program. The content varies from university to university and may have a combination of elements such as lecture notes, quizzes, exams, video clips and audio lectures.

A Movement in the Making?

In July 2008, the nonprofit OpenCourseWare Consortium was formed on MIT’s initiative with funding from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Adding new members monthly, the consortium presently consists of approximately 200 universities (22 of them from the United States, 14 of which are public universities), says Mike Caulfield, director of community outreach for the OpenCourseWare Consortium.

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MIT’s Carson acknowledges that OCW has been slow to be adopted in this country. “[OCW] has mostly appealed to schools that are strongly mission-driven, such as Tufts [University], [the University of] Notre Dame, and Johns Hopkins [University],” says Carson.

At this time, the consortium does not have any historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) or minority-serving institutions (MSIs) as members in the United States. Neither Carson nor Caulfield are aware of any HBCUs or MSIs with OCW programs.

Is it accurate to call open education resources a “movement” in the United States, though? Carson thinks so.

“OpenCourseWare is one type of open educational material,” says Carson, “but there have also been other types of open educational efforts that have been growing as well, such as open textbooks, open journal publications and open educational software. They all have been feeding off one another. To me, this constitutes a movement, a really vibrant movement, within vibrant educational communities.”

The Open Education Resources movement does have its critics, though. “Just because it’s popular, doesn’t mean it’s good,” says Dr. Laurence A. Moran, a professor in the biochemistry department at the University of Toronto. Moran has a number of issues with OCW, specifically with MIT’s biochemistry materials. He expressed concerns that apply to other universities as well.

Moran says MIT’s biochemistry OCW contains many examples of “stripped down notes.” That is, the text of the lecture that is posted makes reference to charts and graphics from the course textbook that are not present because the images are copyright protected by the publisher. Moran says online lectures lacking the related textbook images are “completely useless.”

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MIT’s Carson says the institution “has been working with some major publishers to get blanket permission from them to use images. There are going to be more agreements emerging.” We are constantly striving to reduce the IP issues.”

Carson strongly disagrees, however, with Moran’s view that “stripped down notes are useless.” To Carson, there is the bigger picture to consider: OCW provides a free-learning opportunity for someone who might not otherwise have the opportunity.

Moran, a textbook author himself, whose The Principles of Biochemistry is currently in its fifth edition, says he doesn’t believe MIT will be able to convince a sufficient number of textbook publishers to allow professors to use the images in OCW because they compete for book sales.

A More Personalized Approach

Another wrinkle with OCW is the lack of human resources to help students. At MIT, for example, there is a feedback link where OCW students can send messages. Some professors welcome questions, but most of the time, admits Carson, they are too busy to answer questions.

UC Irvine has a more personalized approach with a single human contact who coordinates both academic and administrative questions and gets the answers within a one-day period. Granted, though, UC Irvine has 20 OCW offerings compared to MIT’s 1,800.

At UC Irvine, the courses are geared toward professional and personal development rather than standard undergraduate subjects. Two of the more popular OCW classes are “Fundamentals of Personal Finance” and “California Subject Examination for Teachers.”

“The aim is to have at least one full course for every certificate program in our university extension,” says Larry Cooperman, director of UC Irvine’s OCW, in explaining the strategic planning process of course selection for his department.

Dr. Gary W. Matkin, dean of continuing education at UC Irvine, adds that, when it comes to OCW, MIT also has a larger variability in what it considers a course. “MIT’s courses can range from a syllabus with a few resources to a 450-page html-page course with self-tests. At UC Irvine we have a set standard for all OCW that requires it to have a complete set of learning materials, be organized in a coherent way, and a narrative thread throughout.”


Matkin says many OCW courses are part of existing UC Irvine Extension certificate programs, adding that new courses are developed with grant funding.

Still, the question remains about how committed state legislatures are to support OCW programs. In California, for example, which has a $42 billion deficit this year, does the legislature feel that UC Irvine’s OCW program will help residents develop skills that can make them more employable to improve the state’s 7.7 percent unemployment rate? Or do they feel a state school should not give away educational content?

The offices of Senate leader Darrell Steinberg and assistant president pro tempore Sen. Leland Yea did not respond to numerous requests for comment. The office of Sen. Mimi Walters of the 33rd district, where UC Irvine is located, also did not respond to requests for comment.

Perhaps this kind of government apathy is what Caulfield is hoping to change when he says that one of the OCW Consortium’s goals for the future in the United States is to get state governments more interested in directly supporting OCW. In China, Vietnam and the United Kingdom, Caulfield says OCW is increasingly being looked at as a national infrastructure project with government and universities working together to benefit the whole country. The UK, for example, distributes grant money to experimental OCW projects.

For UC Irvine and MIT, they offer open education resources via OCW for fundamentally the same reason. “We want to help learners around the world,” says MIT’s Carson.

Adds UC Irvine’s Cooperman: “OCW is an outreach project to make knowledge available for free.”

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