OCW Sustainability Formula?

October 7, 2007

I attended the Open Courseware Consortium (OCWC) conference in beautiful Logan, Utah at the end of September. The OCW “movement” is still relatively young (2002ish?), and the OCWC organization is busy trying to define its mission and structure.

UC Berkeley joined OCWC in August, although we have been delivering “open courseware” via our online lectures since 1995 (http://webcast.berkeley.edu). This began as a research project managed by Professor Larry Rowe in his Berkeley Multimedia Research Center (BMRC) as the BIBS project (Berkeley Internet Broadcast System). We are now busy on what we call webcast NG, the next generation of the webcasting infrastructure that is being built upon Sakai’s open source framework and new infrastructure that includes some key elements from one of our favorite education and media companies, Apple. I gave a little talk about this while at OCWC and have attached my slides as a PDF if you are interested in learning more about what we do at UC Berkeley.

Some of the discussions I enjoyed the most were about sustainability. This is always of interest to me, as someone who is responsible for providing centrally supported services to my campus. Sustainability was talked about in terms of the OCWC organization and in terms of the OCW effort in general.

I think a central criterion for sustainability in the open content arena is “perceived value”. This means the value provided by the supporting organizations, and the value provided by the activity of providing the content (think about the alignment of university mission for this one), and, hopefully, the value of the content itself.

I suspect there is a formula for something like this that looks like, sustainability + meeting real (local and global) need + innovation = value. When looking through the lens of this formula, there may be an opportunity to expand the definition of OCW and its associated activities. To date it has often been defined as a publishing model which reflects the artifacts and experiences of a traditional course taught in the physical space of a classroom as well as those represented in an LMS or CLE. When thinking about sustainability, a publishing model makes good sense. However, while sustainability remains (and should be) prominent for most of us (this need is driving UCB’s current efforts), I doubt there is value in constraining the OCW vision to this in the future: innovation and meeting real needs will begin to take us well beyond this.

In regards to the meeting real needs part of the formula, at UCB we deliver videos and podcasts of complete courses via the capture of lectures. As we all know, a lecture is in no way the entirety of the course and this limitation is one of the common arguments used to convince a professor that public webcasts or podcasts are an OK thing to do — we are not giving away the keys to the kingdom! In fact, I think I would be hard pressed to find a large contingent of UC Berkeley professors at this moment who would be willing to release their entire course content in the manner of MIT’s powerful OCW program, let alone obtain an operating budget that would enable me to do so. That said, the email we receive from people all over the world indicates that in many cases, they consider these videos and podcasts alone as fantastic learning aids that expand their thinking and knowledge in valuable ways – these course web & pod casts improve lives! Now, if we could only get the funding to make all this content fully accessible through captioning, then we would truly be meeting real needs.

Adding “innovation” into the mix

While UCB is heads-down on getting our NG infrastructure in place, we are anxiously thinking ahead about new tools that will improve the experience of interacting with this content and help learners manage and share their own learning. These can be simple widgets with discrete interactions, to more complex applications that need to integrate with each other to manage institutional data through a CLE-type environment. Supporting these types of interactions begin to round out the value proposition since the activities that support managing an individual’s own learning and engaging with others to build knowledge are key motivators for learners. One way in which we can start to jump start this and alleviate costs is to form partnerships across higher ed and with companies doing interesting work such as YouTube and Apple, as well as building our platforms in an open enough way that our own constituencies can start to add to the value proposition!

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