The independent news organization of Duke University

Universities make courses available to public online

People all over the world can now take certain classes at Massachusetts Institute of Technology without having to apply, enroll or even pay tuition.

Through MIT’s OpenCourseWare Program, anyone with an Internet connection can take classes ranging from linear algebra to physics. Lecture notes, videos and exams for about 2,000 courses are posted online, and anyone can obtain them without a registration.

More than 100 universities worldwide—23 in the United States including Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health and Tufts University—have put course materials online through the OpenCourseWare Consortium. Duke is not currently involved in the project, which is partly funded by charitable organizations, said Steve Nowicki, dean and vice provost of undergraduate education.

Duke has not formulated an official opinion on online lectures, but Nowicki said he firmly believes in trying to “transform away from an older textbook model” to a “new model which is more open.” He noted, however, that this new model would have to include a stable financial basis, as MIT’s program depends on charitable contributions.

“Half of the funding is coming from MIT and half is from foundations and private donations,” said Lynne O’Brien, director of academic technology at Duke. “It’s not at all clear that that kind of funding would be available for other institutions and it would be very expensive for Duke to fund it entirely on its own.... [But] I have not heard anybody say that the cost is the major factor holding that up.”

Nowicki sees potential for extending such a program beyond simply putting lectures online. His hope would be for the lectures to help students learn the primary content of the course on their own so that when they come to class, they have already been exposed to the material and can more actively engage with it.

Although conversations about making course materials more openly available have started, there is no specific program at Duke right now that is trying to get faculty members to put their lectures online.

Director of Digital Information Strategy Paolo Mangiafico said Duke has had the capability to record lectures from many classrooms through the DukeCapture, an automated recording system at 60 different locations across campus that allows professors to stream lectures on several different online locations. He added that it is up to the professors to decide whether they would like to record their lectures, share them publicly or only make them available to enrolled students.

“Duke provides both the technology and the people to support the faculty who want to do that,” O’Brien said. “However, there is nobody at the administrative level or anywhere else saying you ought to do this or you have to do this.”

Alvin Crumbliss, interim dean of the faculty of Arts and Sciences and Trinity College, and Ed Gomes, senior associate dean for technology services in Trinity, wrote in an e-mail that some faculty have expressed a desire to share their course materials more openly, and that they would prefer a method of uploading material to one place where some material could be protected while other content could be open to the public.

But Judith Kelley, a public policy professor who teaches a popular lecture course, Public Policy 55D “Intro to Policy Analysis,” said she is most concerned with what is in the best interest of her students. She said she believes that the more materials that are posted online, the harder it becomes for students to get engaged in the classroom. She fears it would decrease students’ motivation to attend lecture, to pay attention and, most importantly, rob the lecture of novelty and life.

“It detracts from the class experience being vibrant and alive in real time,” Kelley said. “It’s substituting a real experience for an online experience.”

Still, Nowicki said, MIT has been very pleased with the program and finds that it attracts students to MIT and helps the school’s brand internationally. He said, however, the program hasn’t necessarily changed the educational experience itself at MIT.

“What you get for an MIT education is the interaction with the faculty members, with the other students,” O’Brien said. “The materials alone are not a course any more than having a textbook is having a course.”

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