Why Some Elite Colleges Give Away Courses Online

Courtesy of Taylor Walsh

Taylor Walsh
January 19, 2011

Foundations and universities have spent a fortune producing freely available online course materials. This week a new book, Unlocking the Gates (Princeton University Press), takes stock of that movement by focusing on some of its most high-profile players and their online successes and failures.

The author, Taylor Walsh, is a research analyst with Ithaka S+R, the research division of the nonprofit Ithaka consulting group, which supported the project together with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The Chronicle asked Ms. Walsh to discuss what she had learned about the online ventures of MIT, Yale, Carnegie Mellon, and other universities.

Q. Your book opens with two online-education busts that date back to the late 1990s: Fathom, led by Columbia University, and AllLearn, which included Oxford, Princeton, Stanford. and Yale. What was the influence of those failed ventures, designed to make money from noncredit courses, on the subsequent movement to give away online course materials at places like Yale?

A. As opposed to seeing recorded versions of their courses as a product to sell, they saw it as a service to offer. That's the main take-away from Fathom and AllLearn: that at this moment, enrichment courses, no matter how prestigious the institution they come from, aren't a viable product to sell if you expect to make money, and that perhaps the true power here lies in the ability to share openly and the ability to give it away.

Q. After interviewing over 80 people and surveying the open-education landscape, can you generalize about what impact the movement has had? Your book includes a striking quote from Ira Fuchs, a former program officer who oversaw the MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) grant at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation: "If you take away OCW completely, I'm not sure that higher education would be noticeably different."

A. What's most striking to me is how difficult these projects have found it to gauge the impact of an open and free resource. They're really carving out new territory. And they're working without existing benchmarks and metrics. I think it's really important that those sorts of benchmarks and metrics be developed, as do the project leaders.

Q. Some of these projects are very popular, but is there evidence of their learning effectiveness?

A. That's part of what makes the OLI [Open Learning Initiative, based at Carnegie Mellon University] so unique, is that built into the environment itself, that accomplishes the teaching, is the mechanism for assessment. ... They have given a control group and a variable group the same final, and found that the students using OLI aren't hurt in the slightest by not having had the same level of in-person instruction—that the system did just as well, if not better, at teaching them this material. ... Beyond those two studies, there really hasn't been a systematic appraisal of learning outcomes based on openly available material writ large. No one disputes that these open-courseware initiatives have done much good. But it's impossible, with the currently available data, to determine how much good.

Q. The project that seems to have the most potential—the interactive, feedback-driven courses from Carnegie Mellon—has low usage rates relative to other programs. You also write that it has run out of discretionary funds for new Carnegie Mellon courses. Discuss these challenges, and where you see OLI going.

A. There's not much "edu-tainment" to be found in the Carnegie Mellon courses. It's really about wanting to learn introductory statistics, and going step-by-step through these modules influenced by cognitive science. It's not going to attract the volume of usage, or necessarily the attention from reporters, that a much more easily consumable humanities lecture video might. ... The concept of a sophisticated learning environment, in which a learner can really master concepts without the support of a live instructor—I think that will endure. If anything, we'll see more of it. The ability to deploy an environment like that could really allow universities to teach a great deal of students at a very high level of efficacy and quality, while saving space and faculty time.

Q. You write that "the selective universities that have been the trailblazers in developing these courseware materials for the general public have been among the most reluctant to use them to reform their own pedagogical approaches." Do you think such colleges will ever embrace for-credit e-learning in a serious way?

A. There are some signs of change, particularly coming out of highly selective public universities: University of North Carolina Chapel Hill [moving] their introductory Spanish course to online only, and then the project out of California to pilot a set of online courses that could be used to teach undergraduates throughout the UC system. Should experiments like those go well, that could really constitute a major vote of confidence in the medium of online teaching.

Q. You write that projects at Columbia and MIT arose in part because those universities did not want to be eclipsed online. And later, other universities may have resisted joining the OpenCourseWare Consortium because they did not want to be seen as following MIT. How did competition among colleges influence the projects in your book?

A. [Early on] there wasn't yet any right answer as to what a university presence online would be. There was a bit of a race to get there first, and to set that standard. That motivated a lot of these efforts in that earliest phase. With the free projects that followed, they seem to learn from and engage in healthy competition with one another. New players want to do something distinctive. As new ideas arise, those that have been there for a while tend to evolve accordingly. ... When MIT OCW started, it was very text-based. ... The great success of the Open Yale Courses project, and all the attention that Yale's received from the press and from users for how beautiful and user-friendly its video content is, may have pushed MIT toward exploring more video for itself.