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Universities without borders: do we need campuses in the age of Open CourseWare?

Is Open CourseWare a spiral of doom or virtuous circle for academies? glenn

Universities pride themselves on the quality of their teaching. They spruik superior teachers, superior facilities, superior learning experiences, superior learning outcomes. High scores on these four criteria will attract superior students, leading to a superior upwards spiral.

But what happens if open access is provided to that exclusive property? Could open learning co-exist with the pursuit of competitive, exclusive advantage?

It can, and it does.

Opening the academies

In an audacious step in 2001, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) made most of its teaching materials free, publicly accessible, reusable & remixable via a Creative Commons licence.

It gave much of its precious, and most prestigious, advantage to the world. Launching openness as a principle of institutional learning practice, MIT President Charles Vest said:


“Consider the direct question, ‘How is the internet going to be used in education, and what is your university going to do about it?’ An answer from the MIT Faculty is this: Use it to provide free access to the primary materials for virtually all our courses. We are going to make our educational material available to students, faculty, and other learners, anywhere in the world, at any time, for free.”

This was the launch of Open CourseWare.

But it’s not simply altruistic. MIT has found that making faculty members’ efforts in teaching and learning openly available to the world has brought significant tangible benefits to the institution. There is greater exposure for its work worldwide, and support for recruitment of the best students, who look at the Open CourseWare materials as they make their application decisions.

Surveys of MIT staff, many of whom were initially sceptical of this experiment, now believe MIT’s Open CourseWare has not only been beneficial to the institution, students and other faculty members and learners around the world, but has also raised their own – already very elevated – standing in their field.

Open CourseWare is an example of open policies and practices that have enhanced the recognition of MIT’s intellectual contributions and increased its competitive edge.

Hundreds of institutions are following MIT’s example, including University of California Berkeley, Tufts, and the University of Michigan in the USA, and institutions in 39 countries worldwide.

In Australia, only one institution, the University of South Queensland, has made the commitment, and that at the minimum ten-course level. These schools have, together with MIT formed the Opencourseware Consortium.

Common ground

What happens to the intellectual property of the teaching materials? MIT’s solution was to release OCW under Creative Commons, the leading international shareware licensing system.


Under Creative Commons, you select the license you wish to use to limit the nature of the sharing to meet your interests. You may elect a “not-for-profit” option to restrict others from profiting from your work while allowing its reuse with attribution and even remixing as long as the same open access provisions that it came with are preserved and propagated.

OCW is splendid for independent learners, and for learners in poor countries or remote locations who can’t afford, or reach, a quality education. It’s convenient, flexible and high-quality. You can pick and choose your courses and materials.

Individual learning

OCW learners are self-learners. There is no interaction with anyone associated with the course, course material, or for that matter anyone else – unless you have, or make friends with, others who are taking the same course.

OCW is not a distance learning program. It’s a window into how an individual academic at a given institution organises, selects, and expresses his or her teaching of a subject, whether that be Introduction to Physics or Introduction to Literary Theory. There are no tutorials or feedback. It is not an education per se – it is a curated selection of learning materials.


Think of it as a window into what is going on within the university, emphasising how a campus transforms content into an education through the opportunity for face-to-face interactions among academics and students, combined with the infrastructure of a physical space that goes beyond the thin veneer of online content.

Staff putting their courses into OCW format are being asked for a substantial commitment. If you are going to publish your teaching materials to the world, they had better be good. That often means adapting, rewriting and, most importantly, ensuring the content shared is not encumbered by copyright.

And it is necessary to ask: if this effort is needed to publicly share my course content, what am I giving my fee-paying on-campus students?

Intelligent design

OCW and similar open initiatives are provocative examples of new ways of sharing content for learning. But another page has been turned in this story.

A pair of the world’s foremost experts in artificial intelligence, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig has announced a free, open access course, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, that provides feedback, quizzes and the opportunity to ask questions. With this move, we are shifting from a snapshot of course content to a interactive course. And they’re offering it to 162,000 students worldwide right now.

The course is offered in partnership with Stanford University Engineering. But as the URL reveals, this is a class offered outside the domain.

This is a bold and provocative step beyond OCW. To be sure, it has a long way to go yet. But if this project succeeds, and if others can adapt this model to other domains, we can start to contemplate real, high-quality open learning without traditional university infrastructure – the classroom and laboratory, the tutorial, the library, the cloister.

If this works, it raises simple, but devastating, questions. In a world of OCW and now the emergence of “free range” courses, what is the role of the traditional university and what is the value of a physical campus? Are we prepared for the consequences of “open”?

This is the second in a series of related articles to be published during Open Access Week. Read the first here.

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