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Can you benefit from open course ware?

By Olaf Resch / July 2007

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Reader's Digest lists MIT's Open Course Ware (OCW) as one of America's 100 Best Ideas. But who benefits from OCW? And how can those benefits be maximized?

The Basics

An OCW is a university course that is provided to the public without charge via the Internet. The most important and influential concept of OCW was developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). MIT is still the main promoter of OCW and also the driving force behind the OCW Consortium, which coordinates OCW activities among participating universities all over the world.

The primary characteristics of OCW are that it is offered for free, does not lead to a degree, and does not grant access to faculty. The OCW Consortium requires that participating universities publish at least 10 courses as OCW under their own name. Each university determines the format for an OCW.

The original MIT OCW is derived from traditional MIT courses and consists of syllabi, online presentations, and reading recommendations, which makes it particularly handy for use by other faculty. By contrast, Britain's Open University bases its OCW on e-learning materials and is therefore squarely focused on the needs of self-learners.

OCW Beneficiaries

The main beneficiaries of OCW are self-learners, participating universities, and faculty members. Because OCW does not provide any credentials, self-learners use it solely for personal benefit. When the right material is offered, OCW can serve as a life-altering resource for those who have no other access to higher education. And at conventional universities, OCW is often blended with other forms of learning for a richer student experience.

Those who publish their own courses as OCW can present themselves as experts in a particular field to a wider audience, bringing attention to books and other materials they'd like to promote. But the costs of providing OCW should not be underestimated—the OCW must be produced, published, and hosted, each with its own assurance of quality. The educational advantages of using OCW are obvious, especially since OCW can be easily adapted in most cases, or used in its original form.

Faculty who simultaneously use and publish OCW benefit the most from it. Not having to reinvent the wheel in areas where established knowledge is available saves time and effort, which can be invested in the creation of original OCW in areas of individual expertise. In the best-case scenario, the provision and the utilization of OCW are balanced, leading to an increased quantity and quality of material from which all parties benefit.

The Future

OCW is still a new and evolving concept. The recently added Google search facility on the OCW Consortiums website—which enables searches across all OCW offerings —is one example of a forward-looking, super-organizational approach. But the OCW Consortium should provide even more coordination, such as by using meta data to help locate and provide exactly the OCW sought by both self-learners and faculty. Another open issue is volunteer contributions to OCW. Volunteer instructors could play a significant role, but the volunteers must be found, trained, and motivated. We need to provide a steady and supportive teaching environment if we are to fulfill OCW's potential.


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