OpenCourseWare around the world: China and India

April 6, 2008, [MD]

The idea of OpenCourseWare in its current incarnation started with MIT (note that the Wikipedia page I linked to talks as if MIT are the only ones in the world who do OCW - I should update it, but I won’t manage tonight, unless someone beats me to it). They received funding from the Hewlett Foundation which has been funding almost all the different OpenCourseWare projects lately (they just announced another 10 million in funding for various projects) and partly because it was a decent idea, and partly because of the stature of MIT, the idea spread widely.

There is much to be said about the concept of OpenCourseWare in itself: the fact that it is merely a static dump of course material, and not a dynamic platform that people can collaboratively add to, and that all the material was designed for being used in offline teaching, that MIT spends several thousand dollars to get each course on the web (much of it on faculty liaisoning and clearing copyrights), that many courses have minimal materials available, that the format (PDFs, sometimes handwritten notes scanned) are not conducive to reuse and remix, that most of the readings on the reading list are closed-access and hard to get for students outside of MIT… Indeed I often wonder why developing countries who want to avail themselves of educational resources from the West, such as CORE and MyOOPS, focus their energies so much on MIT. I think that for example Connexions, the Open University in the UK, and CMU’s Open Learning Initiative offer much higher quality material for them, because it is either collaboratively edited (Connexions) or designed especially for distance learning on the web by pedagogical experts (the two others).

This is all interesting, and I hope to research it more in the future. However, there is some great material being published under the OCW model, and the great part is that it can be very cheap - get a graduate student to film classes, avoid using copyrighted illustrations in the first place, etc. Most of the material has to be produced anyway in the process of teaching. A large number of international institutions have joined the fray (although Canada has been curiously absent, with its first participant’s just putting out a few courses the last few days: Capilano College). On the OpenCourseWare Consortium pages there is an overview of many countries contributing,with lot’s of universities in Japan, some in France, Korea, China, Columbia and Australia producing content, and existing courses being translated to Chinese, Thai, Spanish and Portuguese. As a higher education geek, and language lover, I find the opportunity to virtually “sit in” on classes from around the world very exciting.

China, which will be hosting the next OpenCourseWare Conference in Dalian in April (which I will be attending), is also producing a lot of content. CORE lists 1117 courses offered by various Chinese institutions, which is an incredible amount. I would wish that they could weed through the collection though, there is a certain amount of link rot, videos that will not load (or are in very obscure formats), etc. However, there is also a good amount (from random sampling) with very extensive collections of written materials, tests, class notes etc. If you want more reliable videos, has a collection of over 300 courses with full video lectures (typically 5-12 lectures per class). They all work, but most are Windows Media Player or RealPlayer. my favorite is the course on Chinese culture in France and Russia, with titles such as #4 China Fever in France in the 18th Century. I keep imaging subtitling that to English or French, so that French people can see what Chinese people are saying about how French people were interested in China…

The Indian Institutes of Technology, known globally for producing excellent graduates, have also begun providing lectures online, through YouTube. An interesting example that you don’t need to invest heavily in infrastructure or bandwidth yourself to provide these kind of services. Their Youtube channel provides almost only science and technology courses, whereas my interest is more on the humanities and social sciences, but for people interested they should be great. What’s interesting is that we suddenly have people sitting at home needing to repeat for a physics class or get up to speed on thermodynamic, and they have the choice between viewing a lecture given at MIT, or a lecture on the same topic from IIT. Both will require the same (sit right where you are), and cost the same (free). Right now, people might choose MIT automatically. But maybe there will pop up some kind of social rating service, and maybe the thermodynamics course on MIT will get higher marks because of a dynamic professor, but for Intro to economics, students really prefer the IIT one, because the professor is so good at explaining?

There is obviously a whole lot more to learning than just watching a lecture, but I think this ability to compare side by side could have wide-reaching implications. (Earlier, most people only ever attended one or two institutions of higher education, so it was hard to compare). I think it’s an exciting trend, and am looking forward to supplementing my lectures on the history of higher education from OISE, with a lecture on the same topic from a Chinese university.

Stian Thank you to joiseyshowaa, seccad, Stuck in Customs, Yuek Hahnand World Bank Photo Collection for the photos.

Stian Håklev April 6, 2008 Toronto, Canada
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