Around the World, Varied Approaches to Open Online Learning

October 11, 2009

Across the globe, governments and other organizations want to offer distance education to citizens, using online systems of free or low-cost courses. In countries like China and India, governments or public universities are backing such efforts. In the Netherlands and other nations, online-education leaders are searching for sustainable business models.

Many have relied on the library of free courses developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's OpenCourseWare project as a springboard, but the trajectory of international projects has taken different directions.

Britain is leading the way in many aspects, thanks to the work of Open University. Committed to distance education since 1971—Open University created its own form of free education by broadcasting lectures on the BBC—the institution developed its open-courseware project in October 2006. Since then, its OpenLearn project reports more than eight million visits as of September 2009. The site allows anyone with Internet access the chance to take a number of courses on an independent basis.

OpenLearn, which is supported primarily by $8.9-million in grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, has taken 5 percent (or 5,400 hours) of the university's multimedia online-teaching materials and made them free to the public.

David Vincent, pro-vice-chancellor for strategy and external affairs, says that while the university based its basic model on MIT's, it is pushing the envelope. He says that unlike MIT, Open University is working toward creating a truly interactive and collaborative online-learning experience. Students can meet up in chat rooms to discuss their lessons, and the university is working on what he says will be the educational equivalent of Facebook, allowing users to create profiles and find and communicate with others studying similar material.

The program, Mr. Vincent says, still needs to develop a sustainable business model. He says at this point Open University has added an additional $2-million but hopes to avoid relying solely on university funds and outside grants.

Open courses to draw students

In the Netherlands, a distance-education university plans to make open online courses financially sustainable. Open University Netherlands offers some free courses online and uses them to draw students to other courses that generate tuition. Robert Schuwer, project leader for open-resource efforts at the university, estimates that 10 percent of those who access the free content go on to pay for online courses.

Mr. Schuwer says the Dutch government won't give the university additional money solely for open educational resources. So the university is testing a subscription service for students who want to take classes but not pay the higher price for a full degree. If the program begins as planned in 2010, students will pay a monthly fee for access to courses and support from instructors—20 euros a month to take one course at a time, and 70 euros a month to take three or four courses at a time.

True open education is "like the MIT model," says Mr. Schuwer. But "it was not a viable model for us because there are courses which cost a lot to develop."

In Asia, national governments are supporting open courseware at top universities so that instructors and students at other institutions can learn from their videos and other material.

China's government gives grants to dozens of universities to help them improve their undergraduate teaching materials and then put them online. The goal is for teachers at less-rigorous institutions to learn from the countries' best instructors and improve their own courses. The country's Ministry of Education gives professors grants to post their course materials online.

Stian Haklev, a graduate student in education at the University of Toronto who has studied online projects in China, says the program, called "the quality project," focuses on instructors rather than students, unlike MIT's OpenCourseWare.

The government sees its approach as the most cost-effective way to improve education. Though students who find the course materials and videos online may benefit, the program wasn't designed to teach students directly, Mr. Haklev says.

Since many professors compete for the grants, which are worth about $10,000, universities consider winning them a matter of prestige. Because of the project, more than 10,000 courses from Chinese universities are now available online.

In India, the focus is directly on students. The country's most rigorous technology universities have been posting videos of lectures since 2007, hoping that millions of students at its less elite schools will benefit. Videos of about 110 courses at the public institutions are available online, with 40 hours available per course.

Cheaper than new universities

M.S. Vijay Kumar, a senior associate dean at MIT who has advised the Indian ministry on its open-courseware plans, says the government will continue to support such projects because it's cheaper than building new universities and hiring more professors.

The institutions—called the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Science—are extremely selective. For the thousands of students who aren't admitted, says Mr. Kumar, "the likelihood of them going to institutions where there are good faculty is slim."

"India is a country in a hurry," and posting course materials from top institutions is the fastest way to spread solid education, he adds.

Marshall S. (Mike) Smith, a senior counselor to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, says the United States needs to keep an eye on projects in China and India.

"We run the risk of falling behind. I think, in particular, China and India are thinking a lot about this stuff. ... There's a lot of consideration and a huge drive to make college much more accessible."

For Vietnam, open courseware is a multigovernment project. The Vietnam OpenCourseWare Project began as a joint effort between the Vietnam Education Foundation—an independent U.S. federal agency—as well as the Vietnam Ministry of Education and Training.

The education foundation has contributed $500,000 to the project. With this money, the foundation and the ministry started a new portal in December 2007 that has attracted 200,000 unique visitors per month.

The materials for Vietnamese OpenCourseWare were almost entirely developed within Vietnam. In addition to uploading more than 200 courses to the portal, Vietnamese institutes are also responsible for creating more than 1,000 "modules"—two- to three-page "knowledge chunks" of educational materials.

The module system, according to Lynne Mcnamara, acting executive director of the foundation, allows even the most time-pressed professors to add to the collective knowledge of the project.

"With textbooks costing $150 a piece, there are a lot of people in Vietnam who just can't afford to learn that way," Ms. McNamara says. "This is one way that know ledge can be shared more broadly."

Additional reporting by Marc Parry