Unlocking the Gates: Interview with Author, Taylor Walsh

Taylor Walsh writes on behalf of Ithaka S+R, the strategic consulting and research service of the New York-based not-for-profit organization ITHAKA. She is the author of Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities are Opening Up Access to Their Courses, now available from Princeton University Press.

KCH: To date, most of the work done in open content has been supported by philanthropists. Yet, you note that leaders in Open Content “have still not developed comprehensive strategies to address sustainability.” How do you see the challenge of sustainability unfolding in the near future?

These initiatives were often launched during better economic times and, as you point out, benefitted from external funding from foundations or governments (outside the U.S.)—so the reckoning with sustainability was allowed to be somewhat delayed. But a decade after this movement began, it is clear that many open courseware projects are no longer fledgling efforts, and they may flounder—if not perish—should they fail to concretely address the question of sustainability.

Some of the most established programs have begun to explore revenue-generating options on top of their free content, but with limited success so far; in the short run, the parent universities that have launched and incubated these initiatives seem their most promising source of ongoing support. But during these lean times, courseware initiatives risk being seen as unaffordable luxuries, and will have to make the case for why they deserve a share of their host institution’s tightening operations budget.

Many think of open courseware as an externally-facing concept: a university digitizes its course materials and puts them online, “unlocking its gates” to the world. But if the most likely path to sustainability is through obtaining ongoing support from their own parent universities, it will be important to tether what began as externally-oriented efforts to internal priorities. This can be achieved in a number of ways:  by casting open courseware projects as tools to support enrolled students’ learning, or to connect with alumni or prospective students, or marketing the institution to new audiences. Many host universities are certainly capable of supporting these initiatives’ relatively modest operating budgets—if their practical value can be recognized.

KCH: Of the open content initiatives you studied, the Open Course Ware (OCW) project at MIT received by far the greatest amount of attention from the press and visitor traffic to its site. Yet, as noted in your book, the MIT-OCW model has its limitations. Can you elaborate?

Among the case studies I examine in the book, I found that courseware initiatives could be roughly divided into two camps: those based on a publishing model, and those that pursue a more interactive model.

When MIT OCW launched 10 years ago, it was guided by a vision that was quite daring at the time: to create open access, digital versions of course materials from every single course in the Institute’s curriculum. A major benefit of this publishing model is that it achieves a new level of transparency around selective university teaching; but at the same time, it leaves much of the actual learning up to the user (though the recent OCW Scholar effort may be a step toward providing further support).

A program like the Open Learning Initiative out of Carnegie Mellon had a very different goal in mind; its leaders’ idea was to fully redesign some introductory courses to optimize them for web-based delivery and to ensure that an unsupported user could actually learn the concepts being taught. The highly interactive environments that the OLI has created represent a distinct set of priorities—and a distinct model of executing courseware—from MIT OCW. And it also has its drawbacks: for instance, creating an OLI course is so labor-intensive that it would be impossible to achieve the kind of scale that MIT OCW represents. But within the disciplines the OLI has tackled—introductory courses in subjects like statistics and calculus—it has generated very impressive results. Any approach will have benefits and limitations; the important thing is for a courseware program to clearly articulate its goals, and to select the approach most capable of achieving them.

KCH: I would argue that for many professionals familiar with the challenges facing higher education in 2011, that the Carnegie Mellon model offers the greatest promise of disrupting the sector. Yet, until the U.S. federal government drew attention to it during budget planning in 2009, it received little attention. Is this simply a matter of marketing or are there other factors limiting the wider dissemination of their courseware?

It’s true that the federal government’s recognition of the Open Learning Initiative was responsible for directing further attention to what had been a relatively little-known project; but other factors may also help to explain this heightened interest. The wave of budget cuts at public universities and the influx of students going back to school in a downturned job market also have prompted institutions and policy makers to take a more careful look at these types of sophisticated online learning models. There is a real profound change in how many sectors of the higher education community are looking at new opportunities today to increase university capacity or to curb the growth of instructional costs per student.

But many of the features that have brought this attention to the OLI also help to explain why it has historically been less visible to the general public than some of its peers. The Open Learning Initiative’s goal is to actually teach a subject like statistics to a user who wants to learn it – module by module, one concept at a time, encouraging the learner to keep trying practice problems until they get them right. This model, which requires a fairly intensive commitment on the part of the user, has proven quite effective for learning (at least for certain courses).

But while this emphasis on effectively teaching at a distance has attracted increasing attention from policy-makers, it does not actively appeal to more casual users. Compare that to, for example, a project like Open Yale Courses (OYC), which has created a series of highly polished lecture videos from star professors teaching general interest courses. It makes sense that far more people would be interested in browsing iTunes U to listen to a lecture or two on “death” or modern poetry than are interested in truly mastering statistics.

KCH: The post-secondary sector is occasionally criticized for paying little attention to learning outcomes. (See, for example this very recent research in Academically Adrift). Will future open content initiatives need to make assessment part of their offerings?

If the goal of an open courseware effort is to truly encourage student learning at a distance, assessment is crucial. The Open Learning Initiative builds assessment into the same immersive online environment that delivers the instruction—assessment is embedded into all aspects of the courseware itself.

But not all projects are so oriented. For initiatives like MIT OCW or Open Yale Courses, which are designed to offer windows into these institutions that expose their teaching to the outside world, assessment of users’ learning outcomes may not have been as directly relevant.

But each of these projects would certainly benefit from clearer definition of goals, whatever they may be, and assessment of their progress in achieving them. Since OLI is geared toward achieving genuine, demonstrable knowledge acquisition on the part of the user, the efficacy of its assessment mechanisms is absolutely key. But if, for example, an important goal of a courseware program is to connect with the university’s alumni, project leaders should also consider how that can be measured in order to evaluate and improve the initiative’s efficacy.

In other words, student learning is not the only valid benchmark—but there should be more benchmarks to measure success in this field, however it’s defined.

KCH: You spent two years examining these initiatives, as well as the people and organizations behind them. Now that the experience is behind you, what struck you as the most interesting part of the effort?

I was delighted to encounter the extreme variety among the courseware projects I studied. Online courseware is far from a monolithic concept; there are as many ways to design and operate an online courseware project as there are universities doing so.

It was also fascinating to uncover the extent to which these efforts are truly shaped by the distinct character of the parent universities that house them. In a variety of ways, online courseware projects respond to and fuel specific institutional goals; one premise of Unlocking the Gates is that these initiatives can only be fully understood in the specific contexts in which they developed.

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