Developing a Personal Open Courseware Strategy

open access!In 2001, MIT announced that it would be launching an initiative to make large amounts of its curriculum materials freely available online. By 2002, the MIT Open Courseware initiative (OCW) had launched its first pilot website, complete with the course material from 50 classes. At this stage of the game, MIT has materials from almost 2000 of its courses available online. MIT also isn’t the only university jumping on the Open Courseware bandwagon. The Open Courseware Consortium lists about 200 or so member institutions around the world. This number doesn’t include universities that aren’t officially part of the Open Courseware consortium (but have some sort of institutional effort to put course material online) and individual faculty who are putting their own course material online without any institutional support. In the United States alone, some fairly significant institutions such as Tufts, UC Berkely, University of Michigan, and University of Utah have thrown their weight behind the idea of Open Courseware. Bottom line? There are lots of universities and faculty who think there is value to be found in sharing course materials.

The important thing to remember here is that no one is saying that many professors hadn’t been putting course material online before the OCW came along, quite the contrary. Professors have been putting teaching materials online since the beginnings of the world wide web (and some even before that). What is important about OCW is that it provides an intellectual banner of sorts, under which people can rally their efforts. In addition, it provides a set of guiding standards as to what constitutes OCW.

What is Open Courseware and Why Should We Care?

Ok, so let’s get some details out of the way for those who are unfamiliar with the basics of OCW and its potential benefits. Simply stated, OCW is high quality (university) educational materials organised into courses that are published online and freely available to anyone. In most (if not all) cases, OCW is published under an open source license of some sort (almost always a Creative Commons license). The point of releasing the materials under an open source license is that users are free to use, re-use, publish, and re-publish the materials as long as they abide by the terms of the license.

The types of materials published vary from course to course, professor to professor, and institution to institution. For instance, at MIT (they are still the “gold standard” for OCW efforts), courses range from the simple (a syllabus/schedule, list of readings, assignments, etc.) to quite robust (lecture slides, audio podcasts of lectures, video lectures, etc.). My own OCW efforts also vary broadly. For instance, my History of the Modern Comic Book class site has a very robust syllabus as well as some recorded lectures, while my History of the Digital Age class has full video lectures.

And now for the inevitable follow up question: why should we care about OCW? Well, the argument for OCW breaks down into three distinct domains (n.b., these three arguments are not of my own invention. These are the arguments that the Open Courseware Consortium itself makes, I’ve just added a little bit of depth)

  • GLOBAL BENEFITS: OCW provides open access to high-quality educational materials for those educators and learners in places where such high quality resources might not be readily available. In other words, OCW is the right thing to do.
  • INSTITUTIONAL BENEFITS: OCW creates a global awareness of institution’s educational approach & curriculum. In addition, it has great potential to improve student recruitment (& even retention). The idea is that if an incoming student is able to get a deeper understanding of what materials are covered in a class (and how those materials are covered) than what would normally be available in the course catalog or departmental course description, they will be able to make more informed choices about what classes to take. For the same reason, OCW also provides an important resource for existing students.
  • FACULTY BENEFITS: OCW creates an awareness of a faculty’s unique contributions to their field and preserves a record of teaching innovation (both of which are extremely important for the process of tenure and promotion). In addition, OCW fosters faculty connections by allowing individuals to see how and what their colleagues are teaching.

The other really important piece of the puzzle that bears mentioning is that OCW represents a shift away from universities thinking about course material as a closely guarded form of intellectual property only available to those within the walled garden of the academy.

Developing your Own OCW Strategy

Ok, so let’s say you embrace the OCW ethos, and you want to put your money where your mouth is and start putting your course materials online. The problem is that you are probably not one of the lucky few who work at a university with an existing OCW infrastructure and pipeline. Don’t despair, it is really quite easy to do it all yourself. All you need is some planning and a solid strategy.

In the spirit of this DIY state of mind, here are some things you need to think about if you are developing your own OCW strategy. As is customary with many of my similarly themed “here are some suggestions” articles on ProfHacker, this list is hardly exhaustive. Instead, it represent some highlights of my experience with developing my own OCW strategy that I feel should be passed on.

Decide What You Want to Publish Beforehand

There is absolutely nothing worse than coming to the end of your semester, deciding that you want to put up audio from your lectures, and you haven’t actually recorded any of your lectures. So, you need to develop a plan for what you are going to put up online for each class you teach (beforehand). If you want to put all of your lecture slides up, make sure that you stick all of your slides in the same place (so that it is easy to come back after the fact and find them). If you decide you want to put up audio from your lectures, make sure you have the right recording equipment beforehand and you know how to use it (if you are unfamiliar with the process of recording your lectures, I’d suggest checking out two Profhacker articles I’ve written on the subject: Podcasting Your Lectures 101: Recording and Podcasting Your Lectures 101: Editing).

Choose a Platform

This is potentially one of the most challenging things you’ll need to do. It is entirely possible that you are at an institution where you don’t have access to a web server (yes, there are still universities out there that don’t offer web space to their faculty). Another possibility is that you’ve got access to space on a campus web server, but that server doesn’t support things like PHP, Perl, or Ruby on Rails (basically, the things that give the go-juice to all CMSs). So, what is the option? The best thing to do is to go off campus for your server needs. If you don’t already have your own domain/web server, consider getting one that you can use to serve your OCW materials. The good thing about using your own domain to mount your OCW materials is that you have a far higher level of control over it than you might have if you were working with a campus server. So, you can (theoretically) install what you want, upgrade when you need to, and manage files as you see fit.

Beyond the physical server space, you need to think about the platform you are going to use to mount your materials. Yes, you could build things manually if you wanted (aka. xHTML/HTML + CSS + PHP = site). However, its probably a better use of your time to install some sort of CMS. I’m an an avid evangelist of using WordPress for this. If you don’t want to go through the trouble buying server space and registering your domain, what not try a hosted CMS such as

Publicize & Network

One of the biggest challenges of not being at a university that has an existing OCW infrastructure is that you can’t rely on the strength of said infrastructure to publicise your courses. This means that you are going to have to do a lot of the legwork yourself if you want to get the word out about your OCW materials. Social media is obviously good for this. Every time you put up new material (or an entirely new course) send out the link (and brief description) to colleagues using your social network platform of choice (for me, it’s Twitter). That way, your professional colleagues will always know what you are up to (and will pass on the link to their colleagues). You might also consider going “old school.” Every time you publish new course material, send out a quick email to your dept chair, campus colleagues, and Dean. These are the people, after all, who might have a significant amount of influence over your career (yup, that whole Tenure and Promotion thing). When sending these emails, don’t just include a link to the courses themselves. You should also include a quick rationale as to why you are doing this (ie. why you think OCW is important).

Keep an Eye on Statistics

If you want to make arguments for the reach of the OCW material you’ve put online, you need to be able to be able to speak intelligently about how many people visit your course sites, how long they stay, where they live, and whether they visit repeatedly. This means having a handle on the statistics for the site from which you are serving your courses. The good thing is, this isn’t that hard. If you are hosting your courses on your own domain, chances are you’ve got some sort of web stats package already installed. If you are using a CMS like WordPress, there are plugins that you will be able to install to do the job

The Bottom Line

In the grand scheme of things, there are two really important things that I’ve learned over the years thinking about my own OCW strategy (especially working at a university that doesn’t have the kind of OCW infrastructure that some other universities have). First, if you want to do it, you are going to have to have a strong DIY attitude. Figure out how you want to do things, and then just do it. Second, don’t be obsessed with everything being perfect the first time around. Just put it out there. There will be lots of opportunities to refine and revise your strategy (and how you present the materials). What is important is that you get it out there.

[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user wakingtiger]

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