The Great Giveaway
May 2, 2007.
By Shola Adenekan
In Nigeria, Kunle Adejumo, an engineering student at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, is using print and video materials downloaded from an American university to prepare for an exam in metallurgical engineering.
Thousands of miles away in France, Brigitte Bouissou, a teacher at an elementary school, is logging on to an internet video lecture being conducted by a professor of mathematics to prepare for the next day's lessons.
In New York, a sixth-grader is in contact with a fourth-grader in Kenya - they are discussing the migration of wildebeest, both using handheld computers.
Here in England, James Heywood, a 29-year-old web researcher, is solving his friend's computer security problems with knowledge gained from an online internet course run by a British university.
Welcome to the world of Open Courseware (OCW), where some of the best universities in the world are offering teaching, learning and research resources to education-hungry people across the globe.
And the fees? Zero.
The OCW phenomenon began at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1999 by a faculty committee charged with looking at how the internet would change education and the role MIT would play.
The committee considered how it might combine the institution's expertise and reputation with the internet's strength to deliver inexpensive content to a wide audience.
"That's when it occurred to us, why not just give our classroom's materials away?" says Anne Margulies, MIT's executive director of the OCW programme. "Such a giveaway would potentially provide educators around the world with tools they could use for their own instruction. Students at other institutions too will benefit from access to additional resources as might professionals in related fields."
And it was a good move. The concept of distance learning is not new and with the growth in use of the internet, many of America's leading universities originally planned to make huge profit from the sale of their knowledge. By 2001, this idea had foundered in the face of the dotcom bust. Lecturers realised that they were not going to become rich on their royalties, and that their books and articles would probably be out of print within a decade.
In late 2001, MIT finally bit the bullet and boldly changed its model by launching the OCW initiative.
More than five years later, the concept has spread to some 120 universities globally under the aegis of the Open Courseware Consortium, with the aim of educating anyone who has access to the web and a desire to learn.
MIT's initiative has attracted worldwide attention with 1.4 million users from Darfur to Azerbaijan.
It has mirror sites in several developing countries including Bangladesh, Brazil, Ghana, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Uganda and Vietnam, garnering awards for creativity, technology and public service.
Proponents say the main beneficiaries are those in the developing countries, where students cannot afford essential textbooks and universities lack enough resources to set up courses.
John Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health is the biggest of its kind in the world. Prof James Yager, the school’s OCW co-ordinator believes the institution’s programme will be influencing the development of public health programmes in the developing world.
After resolving the thorny issues of copyright and intellectual properties, Prof Yager and his team have put 40 of their most popular courses online and plan to double that within a year.
But Prof Yager warns that OCW is not a substitute for a university education.
“The users don’t get credit for using these contents,” he says. “They are for self learners and public health professionals to look at and study on their own. “The contents can also be used by tutors to design their courses to teach their students.”
The main funding for most of these projects is coming from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the charity set up by the American entrepreneur William R Hewlett.
Now, the concept of OCW has arrived in the UK. And who better to pioneer it than the Open University (OU), which has four decades of creating materials that support the distance learner.
Since its launch, the OU's Open Learn has attracted more than 100,000 visitors with 7,000 registered users. Their objective is to have 5,400 learning hours of material on the site by next year - that is more than enough to keep a learner studying full-time for two years.
"Yes, people are often surprised at the ide
a that we're giving away our crown jewel," says Andy Lane, the director of Open Learn. "For the first time, we are making some of our educational resources freely available online to anyone in the world.
"We are encouraging learners to become self-reliant but also to use online communities to support their learning. We are making it possible for educators to download and adapt our materials for their own purposes. All of this will teach us a huge amount about how people can learn and teach online."
Prof Lane says that the OU is extending its services to learners in the UK and abroad.
So, what future challenges will educators face in an OCW-led world?
Candace Thille, the director of Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, warns that sustaining this new trend requires results and that more studies of the impact of open education resources are needed.
"Much of the data remains anecdotal," she says. "The careful studies that have been done have hopeful results, but in the end, data about the value of the efforts is part of maintaining the current high level of enthusiasm."
It is a sentiment shared by Fredric M Litto, the director of the school of the future at Brazil's Sao Paulo University.
"Most universities today are unprepared for the changes society requires, they are not versatile or very adaptable," he says.
"Most universities have still not perceived that the arrival of new information technologies totally changes the role of the institution and the educational process and those that cannot adapt to the changes due to institutional inertia will see their function turn obsolete, their financial basis destroyed, their technologies substituted and their role in scientific and intellectual research reduced."
Open Courseware at MIT
OpenLearn at the Open University
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