OpenCourseWare – Not a Threat for Online Schools

OpenCourseWare – Not a Threat for Online Schools

If you see the phrase “OpenCourseWare” you may associate it with free classes and that’s a starting definition. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) launched an OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiative ten years ago and since that time numerous institutions have implemented a similar program by offering their courses online. And there’s no indication that the increased use of OpenCourseWare is going to decline. What OCW courses provide is an alternative means of informal education for those who do not want to attend a class and a supplemental resource for educators and students. Because you are unable to earn a degree or college credits through completion of OCW classes, it has not been a source of competition for online schools; however, that may change with a pending new initiative.

What is MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW)? It is a select group of the school’s undergraduate and graduate classes you can access at no cost. This is different than Open Educational Resources, which are materials from classes such as shared textbooks. MIT provides a disclaimer that states: “OCW is not an MIT education, OCW does not grant degrees or certificates, OCW does not provide access to MIT faculty, and materials may not reflect entire content of the course.” It’s estimated that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s “free course content has reached 100 million people worldwide, and as U.S. campuses experiment with open class material to varying degrees, MIT hopes to increase OpenCourseWare’s reach to 1 billion learners by 2021.”

The OpenCourseWare Consortium was formed as “a gateway to OCW projects and courses for the entire OCW community, fostering the success of the OCW movement and articulating its benefits.” It is a “worldwide community of hundreds of higher education institutions and associated organizations committed to advancing OpenCourseWare and its impact on global education.” The consortium defines OCW as “…free and open digital publication of high quality university-level educational materials,” and “these materials are organized as courses and often include course planning materials and evaluation tools as well as thematic content.” Through the consortium website there is an advanced search feature that allows you to search for courses by subject and/or by the name of consortium members, and all of the courses are free and easily accessible.

The following are examples of institutions offering OpenCourseWare classes:

1. Open Yale Courses: You have access to a “selection of introductory courses taught by distinguished teachers and scholars at Yale University;” however, users will not receive a “course credit, degree, or certificate” upon completion of the classes.

2. Open.Michigan: Through the University of Michigan website you have access to some of the courses taught at the institution that can be freely used “in your own research, teaching or learning experiences.” There is a disclaimer provided on the website that states “Open.Michigan is not an accrediting body at U-M and does not grant degrees or certificates nor provide access to U-M faculty.”

3. This is a non-profit organization that offers free access to over 200 college-level courses for 13 disciplines. A final exam is required for each course and if a passing grade is earned a certificate of completion can be downloaded. The Saylor Foundation reminds potential users that “because we are not accredited, you will not earn a college degree; however, our team of experienced college professors has designed each course so you will be able to achieve the same learning objectives as students enrolled in traditional colleges.”


Dr. Jason G. Caudill of Carson-Newman College, author of Using OpenCourseWare to Enhance On-Campus Educational Programs, advises institutions to use OCW courses as “an aid in course planning, not a substitute for original design and careful development by the instructor delivering the material.” I went through the list of OCW courses to see if I could utilize any of the materials for classes I’ve taught online and on-ground – and there were a limited number of business administration courses available through the OCW course databases. I chose one course to review and overall, it would not be easy to integrate the course into one of my classes because the lecture notes do not match my course objectives and the wording (key terms and phrases) is different than textbooks and resources I’ve utilized. It seemed to me that the author(s) created the courses for a certain audience with a specific set of learning objectives – and adapting any of these courses would still require an investment of time.

While the courses are free to access and utilize, there are still costs involved for storing and maintaining them. In OpenCourseware Initiatives and the Challenge of Sustainability, an issue related to finances was discussed and it was noted that “often begun in better economic times, and initially funded by foundations committed to the principle of open educational resources, these efforts now risk being seen as luxuries that are no longer affordable in an era of spending cuts.” The host institution or the institutions responsible for housing and providing staff for these OCW projects have annual operating budgets that can run as high as six- to mid-seven-figures.

An advantage of an OpenCourseware class is that its “main appeal rests on the premise that these course materials will be useful to individuals around the world.” The primary disadvantage is that the “MIT OCW staff admits that much of the site may not be suitable for the average learner.” This is an important aspect based upon my observation of some of the available courses. A casual user of the course (someone who is not in a degree program now) could quickly read through the materials and not fully comprehend the information because they have not had an opportunity to interact with it through class discussions or written assignments.

The OCW courses felt to me like we’re going back in time to a period when correspondence courses were popular. For example, describes its courses as self-paced and automated. Prior to online schools, students completed correspondence courses by mail that were self-paced. When first introduced, online schools were criticized for giving the appearance of being automated and that prompted development and implementation of interactive tools. The growth of online institutions changed that perception over time by replicating the on-ground or traditional approach to learning – through inclusion of class discussions, along with personalized feedback and interactions with an instructor.

Upcoming Development

MIT is developing a new, interactive online program, called MITx. With this new program students “will be able to communicate with their peers through student-to-student discussions, allowing them an opportunity to ask questions or simply brainstorm with others, while also being able to access online laboratories and self-assessments.” It is believed that once MITx is launched in the fall of 2012 it may become a direct competitor with online schools, especially for-profit schools – due to the interactions it will provide. Students will be able to communicate with each other and an instructor.

Based upon the information that’s available I do not find that MITx or OCW classes in general will be a competitor for online schools simply because of the limited course offerings for some majors and the lack of academic support. Online schools typically offer extensive resources for students, from an online library to writing services. While there is value in having a platform to share course materials among educators, I remain a supporter of structured online degree programs because they are designed with specific learning goals in mind – and you will likely have support, resources, and instructors available to guide your progress. It is a trend worth watching this year to see how the final MITx program is structured and if it can compete with online schools.

Would you utilize an OpenCourseware class? Share your thoughts via Twitter @DrBruceJ.

Photo © Matthias Kulka/Corbis

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