Open Courseware Initiatives Confront Sustainability Challenge

Online education, all but cleansed of its original stigma, has become commonplace. This is especially true among big public universities, which have clamored to capitalize on new markets by enrolling far-flung students. The University of Massachusetts and Penn State University rake in tens of millions of dollars each year from their online programs. The University of California is considering using online education to help recoup the revenue lost to massive cuts in state funding.

But at elite private universities, the online revolution has unfolded differently. . . . Faced with the choice of either offering degrees online at a price or giving away courses for free, the elites took the road less traveled: they would publish the raw materials — and in some cases videotaped lectures — for certain courses on the Web, but would not offer online pathways for their coveted degrees.

Hundreds of millions of non-enrolled visitors, from nearly every country, have availed themselves of free online courseware from top American universities. Some are professors at foreign universities looking to model their own curriculums on the best of the West. In this light, free online courseware might be seen as a game-changing effort to level the playing field of international higher education.

In Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities Are Opening Up Access to Their Courses (Princeton University Press), author Taylor Walsh profiles current online courseware projects at MIT, Yale, Carnegie Mellon, the University of California at Berkeley, and India’s National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning. She also reviews the cautionary tales of Fathom and AllLearn, the profit-seeking harbingers of the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement, and thus lays out the conundrum facing their nominally successful offspring: As pressure mounts on online courseware projects to demonstrate their value and/or become self-supporting, will the world’s premier universities be able to stay above the fray of online degree programs and pay-to-play course materials? Can they afford to stay pure, righteous, and unaccountable?

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