Some Thoughts on Unlocking the Gates

Over the weekend, I finished reading Taylor Walsh’s Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities are Opening up Access to Their Courses. (Princeton 2011).  The book examines the efforts by several elite universities – Yale, MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Cal-Berkeley, and ITT in India – to develop open content courses for the public. Walsh sets the programs of these schools against the early efforts by collaborative ventures like Fathom and AllLearn to produce online content using a paid-access model.  While the latter failed by any measure, Walsh argues that the jury remains out regarding the impact of even the most ambitious open projects (namely OCW at MIT) which are expensive to maintain and continue to lack clear measures for their impact and success.  In short, it seems like these programs preserve a moment in the engagement of universities with the internet rather than the blueprint for future projects or a foundation for long term development.

As someone who has thought about open course initiative on campus here at the University of North Dakota I was struck my three things in book:

1. Massive Expense. The least expensive project in the book, Berkeley’s home-brewed webcast.berkeley cost $700,000 in 2008-2009. The most expensive range easily into the millions of dollars (with continuing costs). The Hewlett Foundation provided most of the start up costs for projects like MIT’s OCW, Yale’s OYC program, and Carnegie Mellon’s innovative OLI project and these grants all exceeded one million dollars.  With such substantial costs involved few of the programs have models to ensure that these projects can be sustained into the future even on a limited scale or with transformed goals.  While Walsh did not go into specific budgets, it appears that many of these programs invested heavily in creating high-quality user interfaces, polished and well-edited content (in the case of CMU’s OLI, the interactive, incremental self-testing required a significant invest in technology, pedagogy, and content development), and a support staff to assist in the production of material. Most of these projects, even the relatively “grass roots” webcast.berkeley have full time staff who help faculty manage the technical aspects of the distributing content online.

2. Wine in Wine Skins. Most of the content produced for these open course initiatives originated in the bricks-and-mortar classroom.  In other words, part of the expense and technical aspect of the program was the conversion of classroom style teaching to an online experience. In fact, the basis for these programs seems to be that they provide the world with a glimpse into the classroom based experiences at an elite university. For a growing number of people, however, the classroom is not a bricks-and-mortar place, but is already an online experience. This is not to suggest that these initiatives are anachronistic, but simply to point out that converting content from the physical classroom to an online space has occurred thousands of times in universities across the US. Moreover, many teachers are now on the third or fourth (or 10th or 20th) revisions of their material for online teaching and have tailored and refined their approaches to online teaching to reflect the potential of the new medium.  And this content already exists meaning that the expense and effort required to bring a bricks-and-mortar class to an online environment has already occurred.

Of course, some of these courses are effectively locked into various online learning platforms (like Blackboard or Desire2Learn).  On the other hand, I would predict that I could port all of my online, content-rich Western Civilization class onto a blog in less than 8 hours with the possible exception of automated content focused quizzes. My point with this observation is that the expense going into the creation of various open course initiatives represented a moment in higher education where the prestige and authority of schools like MIT, Yale, and CMU, remained tied to an expectation of classroom instruction. Bringing this product to an online space required the schools to develop a unique approaches to gathering content, managing it, and presenting it to an audience.  Less than a decade after most of these initiatives received funding, online content distribution has become the norm for many students across the country. These new and increasingly discerning consumers of online course materials realize that while MIT and Yale are, indeed, prestigious places with great faculty and storied traditions, there is a difference between a good and a bad online course. I expect to see a shift in open course initiatives that come to privilege the best quality online learning environments rather than the vested prestige of the bricks-and-mortar classroom.

Moreover the proliferation of easy to use, hosted sites like, YouTube, Flickr, various Wikis, et c. has made the need to create distinct spaces for online courses an exercise in vanity (at worst) or clever online branding and marketing (at best?).  Not to get all DIY/EduPunk on you, but one could create a robust interface for online learning through a combination of easily accessible, free, open, and hosted online services.

3. Top Down and Bottom Up.  With the exception of webcast.berkeley (and perhaps Yale’s OYC) all of the approaches documented in this book began as top-down initiatives managed and developed by administrators. As a result, these programs took on university wide priorities and significance. Certainly, the abilities to leverage economies of scale, marshal enthusiasm and manage diverse stakeholders, and provide official imprimatur helped to ensure that these programs were successful.  On the other hand, in most cases the success or failure of a course is typically bound up in the willingness of an individual faculty member to find a way to reach his or her students.  The physical space and institutional prestige offers little to the educational experience.

It struck me as odd, then, that this book did so little to capture the faculty perspective on these programs or to consider how a faculty led initiative could manage to accomplish similar goals with less overhead and complexity. Using off-the-shelf parts, a co-op of faculty could easily offer a wide range of content online for free. The university could be an important stakeholder in this initiative and offer technical assistance, branding, and marketing support, but the ultimate control over the content and its presentation would remain the responsibility of individual faculty members. This de-centered approach to open course ware captures the radically de-centered nature of the internet and the removes expensive (and limiting) mediators from the process.


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