OpenCourseWare: College education, without the student loans

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

George Turney/The Orange County Register/NEWSCOM

From the frigid region of the Arctic Circle to the battlefields of Iraq, a free, virtual classroom is taking hold.

Spurred by advances in technology and people’s hunger to get an extra edge in a down economy, universities and colleges are posting course materials – including syllabi, class notes, and lectures – online for anyone to access. This movement, known as OpenCourseWare, allows self learners to save money on tuition, gives alumni a link to their alma mater, and enables prospective students to peek into university classrooms.

Already more than 200 colleges and universities offer courses ranging from art history to economics for free on demand. The classes can be watched on YouTube or downloaded to iPods. And the consortium continues to grow.

When he served in Iraq, John Shelton, a member of the Navy Counter-IED (improvised explosive device) roadside task force, patrolled while listening to psychology and history lectures from the University of California, Berkeley, and Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y.

And on research trips to the northernmost Canadian military base – known as Alert – near the Arctic Circle, physicist Wendy Ermold of the Polar Science Center at the University of Washington in Seattle watches Stanford University quantum physics lectures on her iPod.

Unlike places such as the University of Phoenix, which charge – and give degrees – for distance learning courses, OpenCourseWare is free and offers no reward other than knowledge.

The OpenCourseWare concept began in 2003. That year, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology decided it couldn't turn a profit from putting online its hands-on curriculum with an emphasis on laboratory work online. Instead, MIT began providing its syllabi, course notes, and eventually, video and audio lectures online for free. MIT’s OpenCourseWare initiative started by listing 500 courses in 2003. Even that first year the program attracted more than 4 million visits to its web pages.

But today, in less than a decade, the institution has archived 1,897 courses – and in April 2009 alone attracted more than 1 million visits.

Soon, MIT had lots of company. The college’s foray into uncharted education territory spurred a worldwide movement for other colleges to provide OpenCourseWare materials through their institution’s websites and the OpenCourseWare Consortium, which boasts more than 100 million visits since its launch in 2006.

The movement has grown to include its own YouTube channel, YouTube EDU, which hosts videos from more than 100 colleges and universities, as well as Academic Earth, which lists video lectures from six Ivy League institutions. (Academic Earth is run by Richard Ludlow, a Yale graduate who used MIT OpenCourseWare linear algebra materials to improve his grades in college.)

Apple, too, has jumped on the bandwagon with iTunes U, allowing curious minds to download video and audio lectures to their iPods for learning on the go.

“People pay thousands of dollars for the privilege of learning.... I get it for free,” Mr. Shelton writes in an e-mail from his naval base in Pensacola, Fla. "And I would probably never get to experience it any other way."

Life learners

Another regular user is Nick Warren, a lead web developer at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, in Little Rock, Ark. He listens in on MIT lectures whenever he chooses. After work, he often picks a course and listens to professors discuss electrical engineering and biology, following along with books listed on the class syllabi. Though they’re not for credit, Mr. Warren does list them on his resume, showing, he says, that he’s serious about continuing to develop his electrical engineering skills.

"I wanted future employers to know that I’m really seeking the best possible education," he says in a phone interview. "I’m always trying to better my skill set."

He’s not alone.

At the air station, naval crewman Shelton learned the basics of microeconomics by listening to OpenCourseWare lectures on the topic and passed a college level examination program (CLEP) for credit. He says he listens to lectures whenever he can: working, cleaning, even doing yard work. Recently, he listened to lectures on impressionism and modern art before he visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

In Delhi, India, Deepak Kumar Gupta, a medical intern at the Lok Nayak Hospital, aspires to earn his PhD in biomedical engineering. Through OpenCourseWare, Dr. Gupta taught himself about new software and learned how to write computer programs by watching video lectures.

And right before bedtime or when she commutes to work, physicist Ms. Ermold, tunes her iPod into some OpenCourseWare lectures on physics, which she says helped her finally “understand some things I’d been confused about since taking quantum physics in high school."

For some, OpenCourseWare allows learning without the increasingly exorbitant costs of enrolling for college credit. For others, it’s a chance to “attend” prestigious schools. And for others, living in rural or remote locations, it is their only means to get a world-class education, says Mr. Ludlow, CEO and founder of Academic Earth.

“We’re talking about the most powerful brand names in the world: MIT, Stanford, Princeton," he says. "There are opportunities many people would like to have – not everyone has a chance to go to these schools."

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.

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.”

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