Open courseware on every campus by 2016?

In November, Rice University joined Oxford University and The Open University in contributing free, open eBooks to the iTunes U website, using the burgeoning EPUB format that lets students read eBooks on a variety of eReader devices becoming more prevalent in higher education.

Rice’s contribution of 18 of its most popular titles came from the Houston-based university’s open education program, Connexions, which logs about 2 million visits every month.

The Open University has become an iTunes U staple in recent years. The school claims to be the first to reach 20 million downloads on iTunes U, tallying more than 27 million iTunes downloads to date.

Besides extolling the benefits of providing learning material to anyone with an internet connection, speakers at UC Irvine’s Open Textbook Forum said providing free courseware had become a valuable tool for current students and a reliable recruiting tool for prospective students.

Stephen Carson, director of external affairs at MIT, said recent surveys show that about half of the university’s prospective students are aware of the school’s OpenCourseWare program, and 35 percent said the material influences their college choice.

“It’s a tremendous recruiting tool for us,” Carson said, adding that the program is also an advising tool for students who can look ahead at advanced or graduate-level course material before they decide which major to declare.

Ninety-three percent of MIT undergraduates said they use the OpenCourseWare site, Carson said, along with 85 percent of graduate students.

Instead of diluting educational material, as some publishing company officials have suggested, open courseware programs have motivated many MIT professors to perfect class material that remained unchanged for years.

“Publishing openly improves the quality of the content, because the faculty, instead of sharing it with a room full of students, are now sharing it with the world,” Carson said. “They take a little extra time to polish it to make sure the typos are out of it.”

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