Monday, March 19, 2012
Open Educational Resources: Transforming the way knowledge is spread
DELFT, THE NETHERLANDS — “Do you still remember Tipp-Ex?” For Anka Mulder, secretary general of the Technical University of Delft, the bottle of white typewriter correction fluid (the U.S. brands are Wite-Out and Liquid Paper) once found on the desk of every graduate student was as evocative of the past as the taste of a madeleine was for Marcel Proust. She interrupted her remarks, considered the average age of her audience, many of whom were tweeting her comments, and asked “How many of you remember typewriters?” About half the audience held up their hands.
Ms. Mulder was speaking here at Open Education Week, an event held this month on campuses from the University of California, Irvine, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to the University of Cape Town, Leeds Metropolitan University, in England, and the National Science Library, in Beijing. At 47, Ms. Mulder can remember the days of typewriters and hardback textbooks. Yet as president of the Open Course Ware Consortium, a global group of universities devoted to expanding the amount of free, openly licensed educational material on the Internet, she is focused on the future.
For thousands of years, she said, anyone who wanted access to knowledge had to first find a teacher or an expert. After the printing press was invented, libraries and universities became repositories of knowledge. But now with the Internet, “universities do not hold the monopoly on information anymore,” Ms. Mulder said. As a result, she said, the five functions now performed by universities — teaching; providing a space for social interaction; testing students’ knowledge and offering feedback in the form of grades; cultivating a reputation as a good place to learn; and certifying what graduates know through accreditation — will inevitably change. The goal of Open Education Week was “to make the process seem less scary, she said, adding, “We want to show how you as a student or an institution or a government can benefit from these changes.”
That is also the goal of Whyopenedmatters.org, a competition begun this month by the U.S. Department of Education, Creative Commons and the Open Society Institute, which will award a prize of $25,000 for the best short video explaining the benefits of free, high-quality Open Educational Resources, or O.E.R., for students, teachers and schools. Entries will be judged by a panel that includes the filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, the animator Nina Paley and the actor James Franco. In a speech announcing the competition, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said O.E.R. “can not only accelerate and enrich learning — they can also substantially reduce costs for schools, families and students.”
Beginning in 2001, when M.I.T. announced that it was going to make some of its courses available online, the movement for O.E.R. has continued to grow. In October 2003, there were 511 courses available, all from M.I.T. According to Ms. Mulder, the current total is over 21,000 — with 9,903 in languages other than English, including Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Catalan, Hebrew, Farsi, Turkish, Korean and Japanese. As the movement has gathered adherents, the material available has also changed. There are still thousands of courses on the Internet that amount to little more than a camera focused on a lecturer, or even just an archive of lecture notes. But as Ms. Mulder finished her remarks here, staff members from the University of Nottingham, in England, were presenting a Web seminar on how professors could use O.E.R. to produce custom-designed textbooks.
The IE University, in Madrid, employs 14 people who work full time on producing O.E.R.
“We have programmers, designers and writers working with our professors,” said Martín Rodríguez, director of multimedia content development. “If a professor comes to us with a specific need — for example on how to calculate the cost of capital — then we go to work.”