“Unlocking Knowledge, Empowering Minds” This is the lemma of the OpenCourseWare, or OCW, an initiative pioneered by the MIT University to provide access to university educational contents for free and ubiquitously. The project started modestly in 2002 with 50 courses published online. Now the OpenCourseWare Consortium entails hundreds of universities from all around the world, giving free access to thousands of courses´ material in different languages, English being this the main one, while Spanish is scaling up.
Last April 16Th took place in Madrid a seminar on Open Educational Resources. The seminar included presentations from Tíscar Lara (EOI), Stephen Carson (MIT OpenCourseWare Consortium), Edmundo Tovar and Jesús Jara (UPM –Universidad Politécnica de Madrid) and Salvador Ros (UNED-Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia).
There is a monthly seminar on the topic organized by the eMadrid net, a project for the promotion of Technology-Enhanced Learning publicly funded (Comunidad de Madrid).This time it took place at the Escuela de Organización Industrial (EOI) whose strategic plan has been partially inspired by the OCW project. As Tíscar Lara (vice-dean of Digital Culture at the EOI) said, stating her support for public, free (not for free) and open education. And in consequence her support for tools, contents and methods open as well (see Whyfloss).
Stephen Carson presentation was focused on the impact of OCW. Originally from the three functions universities have -provision of content, learning/social experience and certification- the aim of the OCW initiative was only focused on making content accessible so educators could incorporate the MIT teaching materials. Surprisingly from the use of OCW, educators represent only a 9%, and from this percentage those incorporating material to their teaching is a minority (14%): educators use it mostly to improve their knowledge and teaching methods. Against the original expectations self-learning represents the principal use: from all the users 43% are self-learners (not involved in official/institutional learning), and from these percentage, 41% use it for personal enjoyment. Furthermore, from the students using OCW contents, 44% are self-learners, the rest use it for completing (39%) and for planning their course of study (12%). Stephen Carson announced that given these unexpected success there are future plans to improve contents in order to make them more suitable for independent learners.
In open initiatives there is usually a stress on the distinction between “`free´ as in `free speech´, not as in `free beer´”: in this case the distinction is unnecessary, it means both. Being free underlies both its success and some of the problematics of its future: since OCW is offered for free it is largely dependant on donors. Even though that it is free, OCW benefits not only users but content providers. For Stephen these benefits include publicity, reputation, international engagement, collaborations, connection to students… From a financial perspective these benefits are translated in donations to the OCW project, greater recruitment for the universities and potential collaborations with funding institutions thanks to the publicity and reputation that the visibility of professors and universities engaged in the project implies. Besides, the success of the OCW has resulted in an increasing governmental support, specially from the Obama administration. However as the NewYorkTimes puts it “Still, someone must pay for these materials, and with the recession squeezing university budgets, open course programs are vulnerable”.
Edmundo Tovar and Jesús Jara (UPM)´s presentation was focused on their own experience rather than on the OCW users experience, an indication (in my personal view) of the very early stage of the project in Spain (in the UPM it started in the 2006). Even though the UNED project started later (2007) the views of Salvador Ros were focused on the user perception and perspectives of the future of education. UNED is the national university for distance learning and offering virtual access to educational resources is not a disruptive shift of the educational paradigm, it is as Salvador said their “natural environment”.
Salvador agreed with the audience that openness is rather than an economic problem a problem of mentality. Most of the contents taught at university are universal, there is no sense in using an appropriation scheme of the educational resources: changes are necessary and inmobilism is not a good policy. Aware that changes are costly Salvador pointed out that more students accessing the resources imply that providing them is -potentially- increasingly cheaper.
In many Spanish/Portuguese speaking universities Universia, a foundation of the Santander Group for the promotion of university education (in Portuguese and Spanish), sponsors many OCW projects (included UPM and UNED). Nevertheless funding is limited and expansion of OCW projects is constrained and dependant on the donor.
The original aim of the OCW was providing content, and Salvador wondered if the time has come to expand its functionality to social/learning experience and accreditation provision. Social nets like Facebook or Twitter could provide the former, it is only accreditation provision which remains out of the scope, Salvador argued. For both workers and employers knowledge is usually not enough, educational accreditation is used as a signal of expected/desired capabilities. Universities are not just educational centers, providing content and learning experience, they are also “credentialing agencies“. This was one of the central points of Salvador presentation: access is not enough, for the student, credit is usually a must. In this sense, the data presented by Stephen showing that, unexpectedly self-learners are the main users of OCW, could be an indication that OCW might not meet the needs of other users.
A solution for the economic problem of open education was offered by David Wiley in OpenCourseWars, his contribution to the book “Opening Up Education” (via: P2PFoundation). David Wiley addressed the sustainability of the OCW project and the proposed solution bridges the two claims of Salvador Ros, the economic issue and the accreditation needs of users. Charging for accreditation could solve the financial dependence on the donors making OCW self-sustainable:
“The first generation of OpenCourseWare projects (”OCW 1.0?) had essentially no sustainability plan. These first generation projects were funded by grants and had no means of supporting themselves once the grants ran out (…). A new generation of OpenCourseWare projects are built around sustainability plans. These second generation projects are integrated with distance education offerings, where the public can use and reuse course materials for free (just like first generation OCWs) with the added option of paying to take the courses online for credit (there is no way to earn credit from the first generation OCWs).”
Changes are coming in education. As Stephen Downes puts it in his “ten-year-after” update of his classic essay on The Future of Online Learning (via: P2PFoundation):
“Today, much of the value derived from the learning marketplace is based on an artificially imposed scarcity – a scarcity of seats in classrooms, a scarcity of credentialing agencies, and a scarcity of educational publications, for example. These scarcities will disappear as governments prefer to fund education directly, and at cost, rather than support such business models.”
Similarly to the former Salvador declared that “closed educational platforms are about to disappear, technology will overcome them”. Unfortunatedly these coming changes will certainly face opposition, and interests different than access to knowledge might be dominant threatening the project. Salvador pointed to the recent publication by the Spanish Ministry of Culture of the inform “The Electronic Book”, which has been broadly criticized (see for instance). The book encourages property right administration organizations to enforce property rights remuneration upon works even if these have been licenced under copyleft or creative commons licenses (for a more detailed analysis):
“Esto significa que las entidades de gestión vienen obligadas por Ley a hacer efectivos estos derechos de remuneración incluso aunque el autor hubiera decidido regalar su obra o no cobrar las cantidades recaudadas a su nombre.” (p.19)