Open Educational Resources and MIT’s OpenCourseWare

Outside of China, the Top-Level Courses have been widely understood to represent a form of Open Educational Resources, and in chapter six we will compare this project to the MIT OpenCourseWare project. To be able to do this, it is necessary to understand more about the definition and history of the concept of Open Educational Resources. In this section, I will also introduce a proposed typology for Open Educational Resources, based around their purpose, which will be useful for comparing the Top-Level Courses Project to the MIT OpenCourseWare project. 

Open Educational Resources (OER) is a term used for any educational material that is freely available over the Internet. The term was coined at a 2002 UNESCO meeting, and after several years of development of projects and ideas, the community’s understanding of the term was crystallized into the Cape Town Open Education Declaration in 2008 (UNESCO 2002; Cape Town 2010). 

The term is commonly understood to mean that the material is also covered by an open license, usually a Creative Commons license, which specifies which additional rights users have to modify, share and reuse the material. This is related to the history of the concept, which came out of the Open Source movement, where programmers freely share the source code of their programs with each other and encourage hacking and improvement. 

The free software movement began with Richard Stallman, who was one of an early group of hackers at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab. The fledgling computer programmers freely shared code and their modifications with each other, and when commercial companies began imposing copyright on their software, and locking down the code, Stallman reacted by drafting the GNU Public License (GPL) and funding the Free Software Foundation. The essence of the GPL is that that you have the right to use the program, distribute it to others unchanged, modify it, and distribute (or even sell) your modifications - as long as you grant these same rights to your own derivative work (Xu and Stallman 2010).

Since then, the free software/open source movement has grown rapidly, with products like Linux, Firefox and Open in common use, and participation by companies and governments around the world. Partially inspired by the success, and the idealist ideas of the free software/open source movement, there have been many initiatives to extend the ethics of free/open access to information into other spheres. This has given rise to a burgeoning free culture movement, based on the Creative Commons license written by Lawrence Lessig; the open access to research movement to promote free access to scholarly publications; and an open education movement.

One of the early attempts to apply these ideas to education was the idea of “learning objects”; discrete units of instructional material that could be reused and recombined for various purposes. This would allow a similar pooling of resources that had been seen in open source (Norman and Porter 2007). There was also experimentation with creating an appropriate open license for education and cultural works. In 1998, David Wiley announced the first open content license. This license was based on the premise that educational content should be freely developed and shared "in a spirit similar to that of free and open software" (Wiley 2003). Later, the Creative Commons license was developed, and is now used by almost all open education projects (Carroll 2006). 

In 1999, Provost Robert Brown at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) launched a committee of faculty, students and administrators to “consider how MIT should position itself in the use of educational technology and distance learning” (Vest 2006, 20). After deliberating on the extant business models, and considering how MIT could make a unique contribution to the field, their recommendation to Vest was for all the material to be made freely available to the world. Thus, on April 4, 2001, Vest announced that within the next 10 years, nearly all of MIT’s courses would be made available on the Internet, and that this new program would be known as MIT OpenCourseWare (MIT news 2001a). 

By 2007, MIT’s ambitious goal had been reached; and today they have published “core academic materials–including syllabi, lecture notes, assignments and exams – from more than 2,000 MIT courses” (MIT OCW 2007; MIT OCW 2010d). This very expensive undertaking - each course cost between $10,000—$15,000 to put online - was mainly financed by the Willam and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon foundations, through a joint initial grant of $11 million (MIT news 2001b). During this period, MIT worked together with the Hewlett foundation, which committed to long-term funding of a range of Open Educational Resources, to spread the idea of OCW to other universities, and countries (Hewlett Foundation 2005). 

The OpenCourseWare Consortium was formed in 2005 to promote the further spread and uptake of the OpenCourseWare idea, and to support the institutions that participate (MIT OCW 2010a; OpenCourseWare Consortium 2010f). It defines the minimum requirement for an institution to join the OpenCourseWare Consortium as a commitment to publishing ten courses online (OpenCourseWare Consortium 2010f). Although some courses include video or audio from the lectures, most courses are quite skeletal, and are not designed for distance teaching, but mainly for re-use by other educators and self-study by motivated students. This is underlined by the use of a Creative Commons open license, which allows anyone to redistribute and modify the materials, as long as they do not make a profit, and give the same reuse rights to their own derivative material (MIT OCW 2010c). 

It is important to recognize that there is a wide variety of Open Educational Resources available, ranging from open textbooks projects, repositories of learning objects, collections of lecture videos, online virtual laboratories and virtual tutors, to databases of public domain works and academic blogs. In this thesis, I will focus mostly on the specific OpenCourseWare model, which focuses on resources pertaining to a full university-level course available, because the Top-Level Courses Project has often been compared to OpenCourseWare, and because their final products (the open courses) are structurally very similar.