Open Courses done right: Saylor Foundation

March 25, 2011, [MD]

Existing approaches to course-based OER

There are generally two approaches to course-based "big OER" (institutional OER projects, as opposed to resources released by individual professors or others). The first is the MIT OpenCourseWare approach (which has been replicated by universities across the US, and the world). Given that professors are already developing a set of materials to be used in their face-to-face teaching, let's grab these and upload to the web. The result is a curriculum, maybe some PowerPoints, sometimes lecture recordings, some quiz sheets, etc. From the perspective of self-learners, this is rarely enough material. Only a fraction of all OCW courses provide lecture recordings, and even if they do, most of the resources listed in the syllabus will be unavailable (books that cost \$100s of dollars, articles that are only available through university libraries).

The other approach is more common for distance universities which tend to develop much more of the material by themselves, using a more industrial approach to curriculum development (with teams of subject experts working with instructional designers, web and media specialists, etc). Because they have developed more of the material in-house, and for online presentation, they are able to share more coherent and accessible packages - OpenUniversity UK is a great example of this. MIT OCW Scholar is an attempt at making a few selected OCW courses into more complete packages, with additional resources necessary for students to learn. Most of this is still generated by MIT, but they also link to some outside resources.

Of course, there are also plenty of OER resources which do not take the shape of "college-level 12-week courses", from projects like Connexions, an online authoring platform for educational modules, to Free High School Science Textbooks in South Africa, and even resources that we often don't think of as OERs, such as Wikipedia, and Directory of Open Access Journals. However, for an independent self-learner, it can be very difficult to put together a sequence of learning by picking and choosing from these sites, especially in a subject that is not familiar.

The one thing common to most of the approaches listed above, is that they focus on producing and sharing their own materials. In the case of many institutions, it's a point of pride that "MIT videos", "Yale videos", etc. are being watched by people around the world. They are branded products, sharing the "excellence of the institution" with the wider world. The predictable result is that we might have ten or twenty "Economics 101" courses, all skeletal and incomplete, all containing the material from only one institution. It might be much more beneficial to the world if a Yale professor spent his time improving, and adding to a course created by an MIT professor, instead of just putting out his own material - but that might not bring as much attention and publicity.

This dilemma was one of the reasons why we started Peer2Peer University. Our model is basically based on three pillars. First, course organizers create course outlines that only link to resources that are freely (gratis) available on the web. These resources can be from OpenCourseWare collections, from open access journals, from Wikipedia articles, YouTube videos, newspaper articles, etc. These course outlines are published on, and made available under an open license - anyone can access them, and begin learning by themselves, whether or not a course is running right then, or not. The second pillar is to create a community of learners around this course, which goes through the resources together, discuss the ideas, and support each others' learning. The final pillar is recognition of learning and accreditation, which we are still experimenting with in several ways.

I wrote my MA thesis about a large project for publishing open courses in China, which resulted in more than 12,000 courses being published by more than 700 universities. When I talked to groups of Chinese students and professors in the open education field, they often complained that the quality of these courses was not high enough, and that students would not be interested in visiting them. I encouraged them to think of these courses as resource collections, and curate curricula that were excellent - find a great video from this course, a great reading from that course, put it all together. I also suggested making this easier, when I was invited to give a talk to the Top Level Courses Resource Portal team, at the Higher Education Press.

Saylor Foundation Free Education Initiative

Today I came across the Saylor Foundation Free Education Initiative, and was extremely impressed. The Saylor Foundation was started by Michael J. Saylor, co-founder of a company called MicroStrategy (apparently an interesting guy), and had assets of around \$14 million in 2009. The mission of the foundation is to provide access to a free college-level education for all (they say that high school and post-graduate courses might be coming in the future). Their strategy for achieving this is:

By developing, soliciting, and disseminating free online academic materials in a structured and intuitive format, we will be an alternative and a complement to mainstream education providers, especially for students who cannot take advantage of educational opportunities because they cannot afford them.

They have identified the ten majors with the highest enrolments in the US:

And for each, they've endeavoured to create a full compliment of courses. For example, the Economics major lists fourteen courses, seven in the core program, and seven electives. All but three of these are complete.

Core Program

Elective Courses

What's unique about these courses is that they are curations of material freely available on the web, put together in a very well thought-out structure. For example, the course History of Economic Ideas consists of five units. Each unit has a brief introduction, learning objectives, and a list of carefully selected resources. Here is the first unit:

Unit 1: Ancient Economic Thought

As you can see, the foundation does not aim to produce all the material themselves, rather they link to resources from OpenCourseWare, Project Gutenberg, Wikipedia, and other sources (some of the math courses link to Khan Academy videos).

I have to include another module from this course, the last one, about visionary thinkers and economic utopias:

Really exciting stuff - I would have loved to take this course as part of my undergrad!

These course outlines were designed by hired professors – here is an ad in The Chronicle of Higher Education for "College-Level Course Designers for Free Education Initiative". They are licensed under Creative Commons BY license, and almost all the material is available as very nice HTML pages (except, for some reason, for the reading comprehension questions, and model answers).

There's also, a Moodle install where you can take the final exam in each course as a Moodle quiz. I took the final exam in the course mentioned above, about 50 multiple choice questions. I got 72% - a C-, but I didn't exactly study for it. Not sure what the intention with this site is - it isn't advertised anywhere, but is perhaps the first step in a process of offering more social features, or a pathway to accreditation.

Here's Saylor's Alana Harrington presenting their project as part of the OER University discussions, and she mentions that one of their outstanding problems is the accreditation.

These course resources would work great for P2PU classes - bringing together people to go through the material together (I can imagine some great discussions between people who have been reading about Buddhist economics, anarcho-syndicalists and the Shakers!)


Stian Håklev March 25, 2011 Toronto, Canada
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