Open courseware as a viable business model?

Open courseware with online video lectures cost the most to make available on the web.
Open courseware that incorporates video lectures costs the most to make available on the web.

Open courseware isn’t the end of higher education, as some have feared, but rather a recruiting tool that can lure people to enroll in credit-bearing classes, according to a Brigham Young University (BYU) study released last month.

The study, conducted by BYU’s Director of Independent Study Justin Johansen, examined the costs of making college course material available for free online, and how many enrollments resulted from having open courses available on a university’s web site.

The university has six open classes—three college-level and three high school courses—that drew almost 14,000 web page visits over a four-month span, generating 445 paid enrollments at BYU.

The price to make the classes available ranged from $284 to $1,172 per course, according to Johansen’s study, meaning BYU’s open courseware had a 3.1-percent profit margin.

The study suggests that open courseware won’t boost campus bottom lines, but the free web-based model isn’t the profit-sapping giveaway many have painted it to be, experts said.

Johansen wrote in the study that since BYU launched its open courseware program in 2002, “responses from the academic community have ranged from exuberance to angst,” adding that “institutions have been reluctant to adopt a program of open publishing because of concerns about long-term funding and possible adverse effects on paid enrollment.”

The “relatively small amount of data” used in the BYU open courseware research, Johansen wrote, “prevented a purely statistical analysis of the impact of opening courses on paid enrollment,” but he said paid enrollments gained through access to open materials were “significant.”

Johansen added that “if BYU … converts many more of its 591 online courses, the required computer storage capacity, software, office space, and computer hardware could increase and add to the cost.”

BYU is one of about 250 colleges and universities nationwide that have joined the open courseware movement in the last decade, according to an analysis by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a pioneer in making college curriculum open for all internet users.

MIT officials estimated there are 9,000 open courses available on the web—a generous education technology offering not overlooked by incoming freshmen. More than half of MIT freshmen said they were aware of the open courses, according to the university, and 94 percent said they have accessed the online material.

Some online education experts say that as students turn to the internet for researching potential colleges, institutions that make lectures, class video, quizzes, and exams available to peruse online will have the upper hand when compared with schools that haven’t embraced open courseware.

“I think the role [of higher-education open courseware] is increasing,” said Michael Young, an online teacher at The American Academy, a private school in Salt Lake City. “I think open courseware might help people explore their options before committing to a credit-bearing program.”

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