Mr. Stark's class is one of about 300 around the world to use online course material—both the content and the software that delivers it—developed by Carnegie Mellon University's Open Learning Initiative. If the Obama administration pulls off a $500-million-dollar online-education plan, proposed in July as one piece of a sweeping community-college aid package, this type of course could become part of a free library available to colleges nationwide.
The government would pay to develop these "open" classes, taking up the mantle of a movement that has unlocked lecture halls at universities nationwide in recent years—a great course giveaway popularized by the OpenCourseWare project's free publication of 1,900 courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Millions worldwide have used these online materials. But the publication cost—at MIT, about $10,000 a course—has impeded progress at the community-college level, says Stephen E. Carson, external-relations director for MIT OpenCourseWare.
Experts see huge potential in serving those students with open courses: To help them explore careers. To give them confidence before returning to school. To improve retention once they get there. To lower the cost of a degree. To spur alternative ways of awarding credit. And to guarantee standards "whether you are in a more impoverished, underserved, or remote area of the country," says Curtis J. Bonk, a professor in the department of instructional- systems technology at Indiana University and author of the new book The World is Open.
But his article also stacked up the challenges and mixed incentives that the controversial free-knowledge movement must surmount.
Working against open access are "financial concerns, authors' fears of exposing mediocre content, the weight of traditional practice, and legitimate reasons for protecting intellectual property," he wrote. "Some publishers and professional academic organizations believe they have a lot to lose" as open educational resources grow more popular.
When asked why government should get involved, Mr. Smith responds that its help "would make those courses available to anyone, which is not the case now—and wouldn't be the case if the government didn't do it."
And delivering them? Here's one possibility Mr. Smith describes: Macomb Community College, in Michigan, takes an open statistics course and puts it into its catalog. The students don't meet face to face, but there's a webinar every week or an open discussion online among the professor and students. Macomb gets the course free, adds value to it in the form of interaction with its professor, and charges for it.
The ways colleges or companies might repackage the courses intrigue one skeptic of Mr. Obama's higher-education agenda. Richard K. Vedder has called the president's desire to see all Americans pursue some post-high-school education "an impossible dream." But the Ohio University economics professor, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, cautiously welcomes the president's online-course proposal, suggesting an institution could offer a $1,000 degree anchored by the federally developed courses.
A field whose methods haven't changed much since Socrates taught could benefit from this strategy, Mr. Vedder says.
"With the exception of—possible exception of—prostitution, I don't know any other profession that's had no productivity advance in 2,500 years," he says. Online, he adds, "is a way to kind of offer a new approach. It's applying technology to lower costs, rather than to add to costs."
Carnegie's materials have already changed how Logan Stark's professor at California Polytechnic State University approaches her widely feared biochemistry-for-nonmajors class. Anya L. Goodman used to work from a prepared lecture, starting with the basics so she didn't lose anyone. Now she puts the burden on students to learn the basics online. She focuses class time on clearing up misconceptions, applying the materials to real life, and working in small groups.
[Liked how he had to qualify the prostitution statement....now, of course, with computers, Word, email, and a bunch of other things, students don't have to scratch out treatises on papyrus scrolls.... and just having books was a big productivity boost to education]
I like the idea in theory. I think it's something that could be done with the Library of Congress, which I believe makes the most sense to be the repository of such materials, and then freely copied.
However, they've got to put someone in charge of this whose reputation will be on the line if it's a crappy offering. People don't really expect much in quality from federal educational materials [the best ones I have are comic books that were written over thirty years ago].
MIT's OCW has been excellent in part due to MIT's and the various professors' reputations being tied to the quality.
The danger is that grants will be given to a whole bunch of different people and institutions who don't have much at stake. They will get their one-time grant to develop particular courses, and then... if it's crap, who cares? I suppose the carrot can be the promise of repeated grants if product quality is good, but there's no guarantee that the grants would be around the next year or the next.
Of course, I think my own company could do well in this realm, but I'm going to guess that private, for-profit educational companies are going to be excluded from this grantwork. Though I guess I could set up a nonprofit organization for this purpose.....