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OpenCourseWare: College education, without the student loans

Free, online lectures and course materials offer Ivy-League classes to everyone.

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At Brigham and Young University, Dr. David Wiley, associate professor of instructional psychology and technology, is keen on providing even more opportunities. Every semester, the BYU professor opens up one class to the public, posting a syllabus, course materials, and lectures on the web for free, and drawing audiences from Europe and Asia, while students learn along in the classroom. This fall, he will help launch an online charter high school, The Open High School of Utah, which will have an entire curriculum based on open educational materials, including OpenCourseWare.

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Are online classes a worthy replacement?

But as technology opens up more avenues for learning, critics question whether the classroom experience can ever be replaced through open educational resources such as OpenCourseWare.

“Being in a classroom, you have classmates sitting side by side. You have a teacher in front of you who can respond in real time,” says Catherine Casserly, senior partner at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. With OpenCourseWare, “what you don’t have is primarily those two things.”

This is just one of the limitations of OpenCourseWare. Though the materials are free, there’s no access to professors or classmates, and there’s no way of obtaining a certificate or college degree by reading these materials on your own.

But “the degree,” says Ludlow, “is still very valuable. And it’s going to be valuable for the foreseeable future.”

That is, until something changes. In the future, Ludlow predicts that students may be able to take tests based on OpenCourseWare materials to earn credit. For now, that option isn’t a reality, says Steve Carson, external relations director at MIT OpenCourseWare.

Even the most passionate advocates of OpenCourseWare, such as Cecilia d'Oliveira, executive director of MIT OpenCourseWare, don’t promote it as a substitute for college.

“It’s a framework to learn,” she says simply. And one that is limited to the disciplined self-learner with the time and knowledge to grasp new concepts independently.

For web developer Warren, it means devoting 10 hours every week to OpenCourseWare so he can boost his electrical engineering skills as he develops a patent-pending electrical product.

For Shelton, who never had the opportunity to attend college, it’s not about the diploma, it’s “knowledge for the sake of knowledge,” and the ability to pick up facts and skills on the go, whether in the car or cleaning the house.

“I don’t need a sheet of paper to prove I’ve learned something,” he writes from the naval base.

For many, however, college is obtaining just such proof, says Ms. Casserly. That is why she is skeptical the OpenCourseWare movement will ever challenge traditional higher education.

“What universities offer is more than content,” she argues. “What universities offer is the faculty expertise, is the expert knowledge, the cohort of students…The activity of things that happen in classrooms – the dialogue, the engagement – you can’t replicate that online.”

And Ermold raises another reason: “You can’t raise your hand.”