LONDON — Until recently, if you wanted to take Professor Rebecca Henderson’s course in advanced strategy to understand the long-term roots of why some companies are unusually successful, you needed to be a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Ms. Henderson taught at the Sloan School of Management. Admission to the Sloan School is extremely selective, and tuition fees are over $50,000 a year.
For the past two years, though, anyone with an Internet connection can follow Ms. Henderson’s lectures online, where the lecture notes and course assignments are available free through M.I.T. OpenCourseWare. Why give away something with such a high market value?
“I put the course up because the president of M.I.T. asked us to,” said Ms. Henderson who now teaches at Harvard Business School. “My deep belief is that as academics we have a duty to disperse our ideas as far and as freely as possible.”
Mary Lou Forward, executive director of the OpenCourseWare Consortium, a worldwide organization of about 250 academic institutions around the world, adds that universities get “global engagement” from posting courses online.
There are also “recognition for individual faculty members who may be well known within their disciplines but not outside them,” Ms. Forward said, and what Ms. Henderson calls “first mover advantage.”
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M.I.T.’s announcement in 2001 that it was going to put its entire course catalog online gave a jump-start to what has now become a global Open Educational Resources Movement whose goal, said Susan D’Antoni of Athabasca University, in Canada, is “to try to share the world’s knowledge.”
Harvard, Yale, Stanford and the University of Michigan all now offer substantial portions of their courses online. In Britain, the Open University, which has been delivering distance learning for over 40 years, offers free online courses in every discipline on the OpenLearn Web site; the Open University also maintains a dedicated YouTube channel and has often had courses listed on the top 10 downloads at iTunes University. There, students can gain access to beginner courses in French, Spanish and German as well as courses in history, philosophy and astronomy — all free.
Most OpenCourseWare is in English, but its Web site offers courses in Chinese, Dutch, Japanese, Russian, Spanish and Hebrew. The African Virtual University, based in Nairobi, has produced education courses for science and math teachers in English, French and Portuguese.
Much of the early work on Open Education was financed by wealthy universities or foundations, especially the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, whose mission includes using “technology to help equalize the distribution of high quality knowledge.”
But relying on philanthropy is not sustainable. Ms. D’Antoni, who followed the movement’s explosive growth in her former job at the International Institute for Educational Planning, part of Unesco, said the initial focus was getting educational material onto the Web. “The big problem then was copyright — getting legal permission to use things,” she said. “Now there is all this material. But who is using it, and what are they doing with it? And who is going to pay for it?”
At least a partial answer to those questions — and a sense of where Open Education is going — should become more apparent this week, when hundreds of educators, academics, computer scientists, artists and at least a few hackers gather in Barcelona for two meetings that might be said to represent the two wings of the movement.
One event, Open Ed 2011, is the seventh-annual meeting of a group that began as an educational offshoot of open-source software, which allows users to alter, change or improve computer programs freely and to distribute the results without charge. Open Educational Resources, the term adopted by Unesco in 2002, makes course content and on-line learning tools available without cost over the Internet to users who are similarly free to adopt, improve or redistribute them.
Open Ed 2011 is being held at the CosmoCaixa, the science museum in Barcelona, and organized by the Open University of the Netherlands, the Open University of Catalonia and Brigham Young University. The gathering is for researchers, academics and administrators “who wish to learn about the institutional decisions needed to make open education a reality.” The theme this year is “impact and sustainability.”
Meanwhile, at the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, “edupunks, hackerspaces, creative commoners, radical librarians and Wikipedians” at the Drumbeat Learning Freedom and the Web Festival will assemble for “three days of making, teaching, hacking, inventing and shaping the future of education and the Web.” The Drumbeat festival is organized by Mozilla, the nonprofit foundation that owns the makers of Mozilla Firefox, the open-source Internet browser. The festival has political and educational ambitions.
“There’s a lot of overlap,” said Ms. Forward, the executive director of the OpenCourseWare Consortium, who plans to attend both gatherings. Ms. Forward, a former dean of African studies at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont. Ms. said that for her, “questions of unequal access” to education were the most pressing. “What I think about all the time,” she said, “are ways to bring education to people.”
Mark Surman, executive director of the Mozilla Foundation, said applying Mozilla’s resources to the problems of education “fits in a couple of ways.”
“We have an instinct that as the Web affects society, those parts of society can also affect the Web,” he said.
Mr. Surman describes the Open Education movement as having three pieces: “There’s the content piece — can I get the material? And the pedagogy piece — what are the ways we can teach each other using the Web? How can we make this better for learners and teachers? And finally there’s the question of accreditation and certification.”
This has been a sensitive subject for the movement. One reason M.I.T. decided to “give away” its courses, Ms. Forward said, was “we didn’t think we could replicate the quality of a student’s experience on campus.”
M.I.T. students can use OpenCourseWare courses to get a feel for a subject or an instructor, while students at other universities can use them to supplement their own courses. “If you’re taking a course on Pompeii, and you want to know more about volcanoes, we have a course for that,” Ms. Forward said. But while OpenCourseWare students attend the same lectures, and take the same tests as M.I.T. students do, they do not get M.I.T. credit, or an M.I.T. degree.
At the Open University, where the model is not a selective one, their OpenLearn courses are designed to offer a gateway to enrollment. So far, the experiment seems to be working, with some 6,000 students from the free courses going on to enroll in fee-paying courses.
But as a public institution, the Open University also has a mission to disseminate its content as widely as possible. In the past, this meant that science lectures were broadcast on the BBC, often in the middle of the night. While the Open University still produces science programs, these days you are more likely to find the Open University on YouTube, where Andrew Law, the university’s director of multiplatform broadcasting, stars in “Head Spin,” a film about optical illusions.
Some students at the African Virtual University do pay tuition, said Bakary Diallo, the university’s rector. “Education has costs, and someone has meet them,” he said. But in work financed by the African Development Bank, the university has also produced 33 modules in math, chemistry, physics and biology for use in training teachers under the creative commons model that can be available almost anywhere in the world.
“This is a pan-African institution,” Mr. Diallo said, “and now Africa is contributing to global knowledge.”
Correction: November 3, 2010
An article on November 1 on the growth in the Open Education movement, in which colleges place coursework online, gave an incorrect affiliation for Rebecca Henderson. Although she taught a course in advanced strategy at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she now teaches at Harvard Business School.