Freedom to Education

Student Union Councillor Endorses OpenCourseWare

Last Wednesday, Concordia Student Union Council appointed three councilors, including myself, and one student at large to a committee responsible for promoting the use and creation of OpenCourseWare at Concordia.
Why did council vote on creating such an information campaign and what is OCW anyway?

OCW is an online publication of high quality educational materials—including syllabi, lecture notes, problem sets, examples of tests with solutions and audio/video lectures—available for free to anyone with an Internet connection.

It is not a substitute for a university education. There are no degrees, no corrections on assignments and no interaction with professors. The content available does not always include complete course materials.
However, the thousands of courses that are available have made an enormous impact on educators, students, and self-learners around the world.

Take Megan Brewster’s story—after receiving her Bachelor of Arts in material science from the University of Washington, she moved to Guatemala, where she was shocked to find there was no existing recycling program. Piles of plastic bottles littered the streets.

Since local resources could not provide a solution to the problem, she took her search online. With the help of MIT’s Material Processing laboratory class, Megan had the resources to design and implement a complete recycling program to solve the problem.

The benefits are not limited to self-learners in remote areas. Students can use the course material to plan their studies and prepare for or review classes. This goes for students coming out of CEGEP as well.

University applicants could use OCW as a tool when choosing a major. Students can look over a program’s teaching materials before applying and select the one best for them. This would lead to more successful and engaged first year students and less dropouts.

If professors could look at what others are teaching when designing their courses, it would make for a well-rounded Concordia education by providing them with a wider exposure to the subject materials related to what they are teaching.

Downfalls

Posting video recordings of lectures online would lead to a decline in attendance. An MIT study revealed a two per cent decline in attendance, which attributed mostly to students that live far from school.

In some cases, posting video lectures online is nonsensical, since videos of discussion-based courses may not benefit the user. If a professor explains to the class that OCW is supplementary and not a substitute for coming to class, students will attend their classes.

Another common concern from professors is that they don’t want to lose their intellectual property rights. Through OCW, professors still retain the rights to their material. Anyone that consumes their material must attribute their sources and cannot use the material with the intentions of generating sales or profit.

There is also a concern that professors would have to do more work. While it does take effort to remove copyrighted materials from course material, it is a necessary step for copyright compliance. Faculty at institutions creating OCW have found that it required less than a day of work per semester to prepare the material.

Critics perceive OCW as too expensive for under-funded universities like Concordia. MIT spends up to $15,000 to publish one course. However, MIT’s courses only constitute 15 per cent of the 15,000 courses. There are schools that have implemented low cost, high impact OCW sites.

The actual website poses a massive initial costs for universities choosing to implement OCW, but Concordia already has one, called Moodle.

Time to Innovate

There are already a number of professors openly publishing their materials on personal websites; however, they do not actively encourage those outside of the classroom to use the material.

If OCW is such a great idea, why aren’t many Canadian universities contributing? Higher administration is too focused on business-as-usual to give OCW proper evaluation.

Why is Concordia, a leader in social sustainability, not piloting this initiative? Being among the first major Canadian universities to start a pilot project surely couldn’t hurt our reputation.

This article originally appeared in The Link Volume 31, Issue 14, published November 16, 2010.

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