Saving Time/Money with Open Courseware. Sort of.

Interesting article in today’s Inside Higher Ed – Open Courseware in the Liberal Arts. It details St. Michael’s College President John Neuhauser’s suggestion that his faculty should make use of freely available, open courseware. This, he believes, could increase quality and save time that could be better spent on other, higher-value activities.
First, the responses to the article:
Particularly interesting is the suggestion by one commentator that the use of open courseware should be avoided because it may lead to job loss for adjuncts. Frankly, if our value as academics is based on our providing content, our days are numbered anyway. A focus on helping students learn – using the best content available – is obviously in everyone’s interests. Particularly students.
Also interesting is the notion put forward by another commentator that students may soon bypass universities and learn independently. If universities were primarily about learning, they would have gone out of business with the emergence of mass market publishing. Credentials. Credentials. Credentials.
A third commentator suggested that this plan was an insult to St. Mike’s faculty; it implies that the faculty aren’t doing their job well. Hmmm. Should we worry more about the feelings of faculty members or using the best possible method for acquiring/building digital content?
The use of open courseware:
I think the President of St. Michaels is moving in the right direction. However, he may find the results – if he is actually able to move faculty to act on his suggestion – rather disappointing, at least in the short-term.
Among institutions that rely on individual faculty to create content, integrating open content may mildly increase the overall quality of digital content  - but I don’t think the time or cost-savings will be significant.
In terms of quality . . . the current model in traditional higher ed dramatically limits both the skills and investment brought to digital content development. Faculty are neither trained nor rewarded for this work, and the economics of content development limit the investment to what can be recouped by a single course. While the chance to select from a larger pool of content will likely raise the average quality of the materials used in a course, the bulk of open courseware is built according to the same (inappropriate) business model – so the advantages will be limited until the model is corrected.
In terms of saving time/money . . . there’s little in place at the moment to make the process of finding and integrating third-party content simple or easy. Content management in higher education is not set up to facilitate nimble management of third-party content, and the more popular repositories of content are not yet sufficiently robust. In terms of cost savings . . . instructors are paid little for creating digital content, so there’s little savings to be had. And whatever is currently paid out for this service will be difficult to withhold given that the core responsibility of creating/gathering the digital content remains necessary. (There are, of course, staff costs that need to be considered, but these will be most relevant to the larger digital operations – for whom the problem of content quality is proportionally smaller.)
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