Which Online Universities Are Embracing Open Courseware?

By Theresa Donahue
December 28th, 2009

If you are interested in OpenCourseWare (OCW), then you probably are aware that Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has and probably will continue to make the largest contribution to this online educational effort to date. But, in light of the recent financial meltdown, MIT plans to make cuts to its OCW budget. If MIT is making cuts, then what are other, smaller institutions doing about their contributions to OCW?

OCW is, basically, intellectual philanthropy. A number of universities and colleges now offer courses online and free of charge to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection. But, OCW is more than posting online courses, quizzes and videos for learning. It takes a dedicated staff to deal with publishing an OCW site and to keep it updated. In MIT’s case, the sum amounts to $4 million per year, although portions of this amount are covered by grants provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Andrew Mellon Foundation and through donations, revenue and other sources.

Major funding, however, runs out in 2012. While some arguments go against continuation of the OCW, others argue that the OCW provides equal rights opportunities for individuals who cannot afford to attend college. Free higher education is a necessity, but it appears that the issue of which college can afford to participate in OCW has become the underlying problem.

According to a recent article in the MIT Faculty Newsletter, more than 250 universities have committed to openly publishing course content in the OCW model. Currently, there are more than 100 live sites and materials from over 9,000 courses available. But, since MIT receives such a large percentage of OCW traffic and media attention, the problems that MIT is encountering now may become potential issues for all involved in the OCW program.

One option to financing free online courses is to provide revenue models for OCW projects, and Brigham Young University (BYU) already has tested that model with a profitable “Click to Enroll” option for viewers. This model shows that free online courses can become part of a marketing plan for colleges, and it is working for BYU. But, some other colleges are seeing that the OCW model might fit what they already offer — colleges that offer online degrees and online classes are climbing on the OCW bandwagon.

Online universities actually may serve the OCW audience better, since their staff and faculty already is adept at modeling online courses. Additionally, the online university infrastructure is well-suited to adding courses aligned with the OCW model. These courses, which offer a syllabus, reading materials, quizzes, video and audio lectures as well as written materials, are recognizable by anyone who has taken a course or earned a degree at an online university.

While on-campus colleges have leapt at the chance to offer OCW courses as a matter of ethics or as a way to market their courses, few online universities have made that leap; however, the colleges listed below have come on board this past year, and a few of these schools have embraced the OCW format as well as become members of the OCW consortium.

  1. Kaplan University: This online university is well known for it s test preparation, higher education and professional training courses. Now, Kaplan has made a splash in free online education during 2009 with their OCW site. Kaplan’s OCW courses are offered in seven different departments, ranging from arts and sciences to criminal justice and from general education to nursing. Each department contains from one to three online courses, with a link that leads users to Kaplan’s accredited courses offered through their online university. Their OCW courses are free of charge. Going the full route, Kaplan also has become a member of the OCW Consortium.
  2. Open University: This UK college provides an online opportunity to earn a degree through their online distance learning courses and through day and evening on-campus degrees. They serve about 150,000 undergraduate and more than 30,000 postgraduate students. But, they also have become one of the major online sources for free educational modules at the LearningSpace Web site. This site, although not modeled after the OCW format, provides free access to Open University course materials to anyone who has a computer and Internet access.
  3. Walden University: Walden University was founded in 1970 by two teachers seeking a better way for adults to pursue advanced degrees without leaving the workforce. This school has grown to become a major player in online education and degrees. While this college has yet to provide free full courses online, they now offer free forums, lectures and long-running videos on topics that range from technology in the classroom to information on how to tackle different components in their online nursing and psychology programs.
  4. Western Governors University: Western Governors University offers convenient and flexible online education and offers nationally and regionally accredited bachelor’s and master’s degrees. This college was an early member of the OCW consortium, offering courses in two departments — information technology and liberal arts. While they have not added more departments to their free courses, they have added courses within those departments over the past year.

If funding for major on-campus universities ceases in two years, those universities may need to make concessions to keep their OCW materials and programs running — concessions such as using those free courses as marketing lures to bring potential paying students on board. Online universities, however, already have the functionality to streamline their free offerings and may not feel that financial bite. To use these materials as a means of outreach to potential paying students seems both justified and promising for online universities. The online college listed above are embracing the open courseware philosophy; hopefully, others will follow suit to help spread free online education to anyone who can gain access to the materials.

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