Open courseware on every campus by 2016?

Nine in 10 MIT undergraduates say they use open courseware.

Just as colleges and universities have adopted online classes over the past decade, students can expect free open courseware of some kind at every campus in the U.S. in the next five years, a University of California-Irvine official said during a recent forum on open courseware.

Open textbook advocates from the publishing industry, online learning organizations, and academia met at the UC Irvine campus Jan. 26 to discuss trends in free course material and how making textbooks, lectures, and other course materials available online free of charge has changed higher education.

Gary Matkin, dean of distance education and continuing learning at UC Irvine—which has one of the country’s premiere open courseware sites—predicted that open courseware would become standard at small community colleges and research universities alike.

Not every institution will have a robust collection of academic material like MIT’s trailblazing OpenCourseWare program, Matkin said. Some colleges will provide textbooks freely available on the web, while others will post academic videos on YouTube for anyone to watch.

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“Everybody’s going to have to have some open material, just as they have libraries,” he said.

Students’ expectations for information to be available at no cost and faculty’s fading resistance to the open courseware model, Matkin said, has made free college class material inevitable.

“Open textbooks are really becoming an imperative,” he said, adding that the federal government’s $2 billion grant program aimed at creating more sharable educational material is further proof that open courseware has been accepted as a legitimate educational model. “There’s no stopping this movement. It’s happening.”

Contributing to free educational websites has already taken hold at major universities worldwide.

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.”

MIT’s faculty has shown widespread support for making their course material available for free online, according to a university survey. Almost six in 10 faculty members said adding to MIT OpenCourseWare improves their department’s reputation, and 34 percent said it improves their personal reputation in their academic field.

Eric Frank, CEO of Flat World Knowledge, a popular open-license textbook publisher that provides open textbooks at more than 800 colleges and universities, told attendees of UC Irvine’s Open Textbook Forum that the proliferation of free web-based books has been the death knell for traditional publishing.

Frank said the old college textbook business model “built walls around information” and “treated content as a fundamentally scarce good, which it isn’t anymore.”

Ease of access to educational material forced publishers to abandon the “nuclear arms race of supplements”—such as DVDs, presentations and other add-ons to a course textbook—that was prevalent until the early-2000s, Frank said.

“Simple access to the material in the course remains one of the most … solvable barriers to access and completion,” he said.

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