05 May 2010

Free, Massive Open Courseware Project Boosts Profit Enterprises

The king of all free online learning sites is Open Courseware Consortium (OCW). The OCW Consortium includes over 200 institutions offering over 13,000 courses. The course materials -- and often the entire series of lectures in video and/or audio -- are free online. (see Utah State University's OCW site for example) But now, other for-profit institutions are popping up, providing extra services -- including tutoring, professor consultation, testing, and academic credit -- which use free OCW materials as a starting point.
The OpenCourseWare Consortium, which grew out of the M.I.T. project, now includes over 200 institutions worldwide and offers materials from more than 13,000 courses. OpenCourseWare makes it possible to profit from some of the content that comes with $50,000 annual tuition at an Ivy League school, without paying that hefty price tag.

The idea driving the movement is that information should be freely shared. Still, someone must pay for these materials, and with the recession squeezing university budgets, open course programs are vulnerable.

For an annual cost of $125,000, or a mere 0.05 percent of the university’s $226 million budget, Utah State’s four-year-old OpenCourseWare program attracted 550,000 page views last year, making it one of the most popular in the United States, according to Marion Jensen, its former director.

Former, because in July the university unceremoniously cut off financing for the program, citing budget constraints. The OpenCourseWare content is now being hosted on the DigitalCommons@USU Web site, the Utah State University branch of a digital content repository that allows various institutions to share cutting-edge research and knowledge.

Still, an entire ecosystem of commercially oriented organizations, like the open course aggregator Academic Earth, has sprung up around open course materials. On a philosophical level, the idea of making money from something available free might seem questionable. But Joi Ito, chief executive of Creative Commons, which issues the licenses defining user rights to most OpenCourseWare materials, supports the mixing of free and for-profit: “I think there’s a great deal of commercial infrastructure that needs to be created in order for this to be successful,” Mr. Ito said: “It can’t all just be free.”

...[On the other hand ...]Mr. Carson, the M.I.T. external relations director, likened the institute’s O.C.W. program to National Public Radio, the U.S. public broadcaster. “We’re putting information out there for the public good, and we think the sources of support are going to be very similar,” he said. M.I.T. has seen a roughly 70 percent year-on-year growth in funding over recent years, which Mr. Carson said was a good gauge of the site’s public value.

Freely sharing materials over the Internet creates an incentive for universities to improve themselves, said Catherine Casserly, former director of the Open Educational Resources Initiative at the Hewlett Foundation, which finances many OpenCourseWare projects. _NYT_via_ImpactLab
By adding value to the freely available OCW materials, the new for-profit enterprises hope to provide a streamlined a la carte education that is precisely focused upon what the student wants and needs to learn -- rather than being oriented around a mandatory ideological indoctrination as many mainstream university curricula tend to be.

In fact, the re-packaging of free information for re-sale has a long history. The internet only makes it easier. Many books that are in the public domain, for example, have been scanned or downloaded from the internet, then cleaned up and dressed up, then sold to the public via either CD or paid download. Some people make a fairly good living doing just that.

The for-profit schools who use the free OCW materials are doing something similar, and as long as their final product is attractive enough and of sufficient utility to the student, they should do fairly well.

At least until the government decides to regulate or tax them out of existence for providing students a viable alternative to university academic lobotomy. Government simply cannot abide a free thinking person.

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Blogger SwampWoman said...

Thanks for all the heads up about the free online learning! I love learning new stuff; however, it is becoming prohibitively expensive to go take a class or three when the notion strikes.

Wednesday, 05 May, 2010  
Blogger al fin said...

Certainly, SW. We learning addicts must all stick together.

Thursday, 06 May, 2010  
Blogger William M. Felix said...

I hope they realize it soon. Kids in the future gonna love how they never go to school again just to get acredited diploma and major.

William M. Felix

Sunday, 09 May, 2010  

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