11 March 2006

Open University Meets Open Courseware

Great news (via Open Access News and the Guardian): the Open University is turning a selection of its learning materials into open courseware. To appreciate the importance of this announcement, a little background may be in order.

As its fascinating history shows, the Open University was born out of Britain's optimistic "swinging London" culture of the late 1960s. The idea was to create a university open to all - one on a totally new scale of hundreds of thousands of students (currently there are 210,000 enrolled). It was evident quite early on that this meant using technology as much as possible (indeed, as the history explains, many of the ideas behind the Open University grew out of an earlier "University of the Air" idea, based around radio transmissions.)

One example of this is a close working relationship with the BBC, which broadcasts hundreds of Open University programmes each week. Naturally, these are open to all, and designed to be recorded for later use - an early kind of multimedia open access. The rise of the Web as a mass medium offered further opportunities to make materials available. By contrast, the holdings of the Open University Library require a username and password (although there are some useful resources available to all if you are prepared to dig around).

Against this background of a slight ambivalence to open access, the announcement that the Open University is embracing open content for at least some of its courseware is an extremely important move, especially in terms of setting a precedent within the UK.

In the US, there is already the trail-blazing MIT OpenCourseWare project. Currently, there are materials from around 1250 MIT courses, expected to rise to 1800 by 2007. Another well-known example of open courseware is the Connexions project, which has some 2900 modules. This was instituted by Rice University, but now seems to be spreading ever wider. In this it is helped by an extremely liberal Creative Commons licence, that allows anyone to use Connexions material to create new courseware. MIT uses a Creative Commons licence that is similar, except it forbids commercial use.

At the moment, there's not much to see at the Open University's Open Content Initiative site. There is an interesting link is to information from the project's main sponsor, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, about its pioneering support for open content. This has some useful links at the foot of the page to related projects and resources.

One thing the Open University announcement shows is that open courseware is starting to pick up steam - maybe a little behind the related area of open access, but coming through fast. As with all open endeavours, the more there are, the more evident the advantages of making materials freely available becomes, and the more others follow suit. This virtuous circle of openness begetting openness is perhaps one of the biggest advantages that it has over the closed, proprietary alternatives, which by their very nature take an adversarial rather than co-operative approach to those sharing their philosophy.


jvvw said...

I feel you're being a teensy bit unfair on the OU about the access to the library holdings - almost all of the restrictions on access will presumably be imposed by the publishers rather than the university. And it's far better I think that they offer the online library access that they do to students than none at all which is something that would probably be quite easy for them to do if they so chose.

glyn moody said...

Well, yes, I'm not suggesting they should offer a kind of Google Book service; but I don't see why they couldn't make their catalogue available online (maybe they do - I couldn't find it).

It's often quite useful to be able to browse through catalogues, and I don't think it would impose much of an overhead on the system.

Still, the OU are certainly doing the right thing by releaseing some of their stuff as open courseware: it will be interesting to see how far they go.

jvvw said...

Actually it could be quite an interesting marketing strategy to tempt people all the books and journals they could access online if they signed up as a student!

It is possible that they're using off-the-shelf software that makes it tough to do though. When there are librarians there blogging lists of new acquisitions, I do doubt that they are trying to maliciously keep people out though :-)

glyn moody said...

Thanks - that's an amazing site, such as could only be produced by a librarian....