Thursday, April 15, 2010

OpenCourseWare: Academia opens its doors (just a crack)

OpenCourseWare, or OCW, is a term used to describe materials of college courses (ie courseware) that is shared freely via the Internet (hence OpenCourseWare). Undoubtedly, the idea of putting material from university classes onto the Internet is a very old one, perhaps as old as the Internet itself. And there were a few minor attempts at sharing college class materials with the average world, including that of the University of Tübingen in Germany as part of their timms program, but OCW really began with MIT. In 2000 the first spark of their ambitious plan -- to make the courseware of all of their classes freely available online -- came into being. In October 2002 the materials from twenty-something courses went online. As of 2002 material from every course they offer is available via their website.

Google "OpenCourseWare" and the MIT-OCW site is the first on the list, which is as much as to say that OCW is synonymous with MIT. The hallowed science and engineering university was the first out of the gate and remaina the horse to beat, even if other highly regarded universities like Yale and UC Berkley have made their bids. It is a very fitting situation: MIT have always been forerunners in Academia regarding open source software (OSS) and creative commons licensing. It seems only natural -- like OCW is just another step for them into the world of the free and reusable. They have a lot of company: today well over one hundred US universities have some form of OCW.

OCW course pages typically include a syllabus, any miscellaneous notes and materials, and -- most important to the average user -- podcasts or, more rarely, video recordings, of the courses' lectures, almost always recorded during a class, while the hundred hungry young minds in the classroom take their notes.

I recently finished listening to History 106B: The Roman Empire, a 2008 course from UC Berkley -- my formal introduction to the world of OCW. It covered the history of the Roman world, from the late Republic to the reign of Constantine. It was great: the professor, one Isabelle Pafford, has a lively lecturing style and carries an enthusiasm for her subject that is rather infectious. It worked out great: I downloaded all of the mp3 files onto my iPod and listened to the roughly 40 minute lectures when the mood struck.

Unfortunately, the majority of university courses require textbooks, books that are exorbitantly expensive and often difficult to find. And I encountered the additional difficulty of learning even the names of the texts since "History 106b" came with no syllabus that I could find. I had to piece together what texts the class used through the tidbits I gathered while listening. But that, too, worked out great: after borrowing one of the text books from the library and finding it just-a-little-dry, I turned to the books I really wanted to read -- especially primary sources like Suetonius, Tacitus, and Plutarch, all of which were entirely new to me (I have not yet read Cassius Dio *frowny face*).

Excerpts from the four great writers mentioned above, together with many others I have yet to touch, were assigned reading for the Berkley class. Exciting as those must have been, I had the pleasure instead of reading a handful of books that they missed. I just love the situation: the lectures provide much-needed structure to my learning and introduce me to a variety of new things in the mean. And I never have to worry about exams or dreaded "source assignments." I can take my time, read what I want, give it time to settle in the stomach and the brain.

The MIT-OCW website states that each course on their site "requires an investment of $10,000 to $15,000 to compile course materials from faculty, ensure proper licensing for open sharing, and format materials for global distribution. Courses with video content cost about twice as much..." Setting aside the "how?" -- as in, how the hell can it be that expensive to publish a few measly lecture notes, etc.? -- I wonder about the "why?" Call me Mr. Cynic but I have never seen our American institutes of higher learning as the temples of generosity and altruism they should be.

But I will not dwell on that subject. Instead, I can only say how grateful I am that these materials exist, to kindle the flame that, I have determined, will never go out till the inevitable snuffer known as Death. I am not the only grateful, hungry soul: naturally, blogs and websites have sprung up, written by autodidacts with a particular interest in OCW. My personal favorite, The DIY Scholar, does a fantastic job of keeping its readers current on the latest OCW -- it also features an immensely useful "Best free courses and lectures," featuring the author's personal favorites, updated regularly and split into helpful categories.

I recently discovered, as a result of that second link, a course from UC San Diego on the history of the Byzantine Empire. I have also been enticed by two Open Yale courses, which all features video -- thus offering a wonderful opportunity to see flesh and bone and blackboard. The first, simply titled Death, is a philosophy class on the subject of being no more -- directed by the bearded, plaid-wearing, over-articulating, cross-legged-on-the-desk sitting Shelly Kagan who prefers his students to call him "Shelly" and who strikes me as just a little arrogant. The other is The American Novel Sine 1945, performed by Amy Hungerford -- who looks a lot less dykey moving around than her preview photo would lead you to believe. The idea is to push (or drag) my reading tastes into the modern era, to uncover some substance behind the great names.

Just us next week (or tomorrow) for a collection of photos of "typical college classes" -- or something along those lines.

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