Capilano University's OpenCourseWare sets knowledge free

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      In 2006, John Wilson was on leave studying technology and education at the University of British Columbia when he discovered OpenCourseWare. The Capilano University business instructor was fascinated. He subsequently wrote a paper about why the school, then called Capilano College, should make its course materials available for free on the Internet, and sent it to Capilano president Greg Lee.

      Later that year, Wilson approached Lee the first day he was back at work, a Wednesday. His paper must have been compelling because Capilano joined the OpenCourseWare Consortium—a partnership of 250 universities around the world that are promoting open access to course materials—on the following Friday. That made the postsecondary institution the first in Canada to join a fast-growing number of high-profile universities that have pledged to make at least 10 of their courses available for free.

      In an interview with the Georgia Straight, Wilson chuckled when speaking about the speed with which he was able to convince Capilano to go open with its course materials. “That’s the advantage of being a small institution that is nimble,” Wilson said in a meeting room on Capilano’s North Vancouver campus.

      By visiting Capilano’s OpenCourseWare Web site, which launched in 2008, people can feed their minds by downloading readings, lecture notes, assignments, and exams for 17 courses in subjects ranging from chemistry and media arts to anthropology and business. The idea behind OpenCourseWare, according to Wilson, is simple: universities exist to foster knowledge for the betterment of society.

      “Information is something like love: it’s not worth anything until you give it away,” he said. “Knowledge locked inside your head, or locked up behind intellectual barriers, doesn’t benefit society at large.”

      But doesn’t making course materials available for free on-line lead to fewer paying customers? That’s the question the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had to wrestle with in 1999 when its president tasked a group of professors with looking into how to boost the school’s on-line presence. With the dot-com boom raging, other universities were generating revenue by offering distance-education courses over the Internet.

      But the MIT professors proposed something radical: giving it away. They argued that making the school’s knowledge accessible to all, rather than charging a fee for it, was the only way to truly further MIT’s mission of advancing knowledge and educating people. A pilot site was launched in 2002 with 50 courses. Now, materials from more than 1,900 courses are available on MIT’s OpenCourseWare site, which had attracted more than 30 million visitors by the end of 2008.

      Rather than worrying about losing tuition-paying students, Wilson sees OpenCourseWare as an effective recruitment tool. In Wilson’s original presentation to Capilano, based on his 2006 paper, he argued that as a small teaching-focused institution with limited marketing dollars, Capilano ought to make use of alternative recruitment methods like OpenCourseWare.

      OpenCourseWare users don’t earn credit or degrees for taking advantage of the course materials. Wilson believes that the largest group of users consists of prospective students and current students considering which classes to take in the future.

      Meena Hwang, spokesperson for the OpenCourseWare Consortium, said that although large universities, led by MIT, started the organization, more and more smaller institutions like Capilano are jumping onboard. She agreed that recruitment and marketing are factors—smaller institutions can benefit from being associated with schools like MIT—but maintained that transparency is the primary motivator. One of the most significant accomplishments of the Internet, according to Hwang, is how the increasing public availability of information has promoted governmental and corporate transparency. She thinks the concept can be applied to educational institutions as well: public scrutiny means schools are more accountable for what they teach. Universities that offer course materials free on-line have noticed some professors making extra effort to improve their classes. “Universities are doing OpenCourseWare because they believe this is the way to improve quality of education,” Hwang said.

      Wilson argues that OpenCourseWare and the open-education movement in general are an antidote to the increasing commercialization of universities. As educational institutions ran into funding problems in the past few decades, they began to recognize the economic value of the intellectual property they produce. Since then, knowledge—no longer seen as just a public good—has increasingly had a price tag attached. “But when they do that, they are fundamentally going away from what their purpose was as a university, which was to expand the body of knowledge,” he said. “As soon as you put boxes around how knowledge can be used, you don’t get the synergy that society has for building new knowledge.”

      Wilson’s arguments for OpenCourseWare echo University of Ottawa chief librarian Leslie Weir’s explanation of why her school announced in December an open-access program that includes making all of its research publications, and some of its course materials, available for free on-line. It’s the first Canadian university to sign on to the Compact for Open-Access Publishing Equity. The major reason for UOttawa’s move is a dedication to building and sharing knowledge for the betterment of society, particularly the school’s considerable medical research, according to Weir. “We feel that people in the developing world getting access to the latest medical research is important to the health of the world,” she said.

      Weir believes it’s inappropriate for commercial publishers to profit from publicly funded research. As it is now, most professors assign the copyright of their articles to big publishing companies that charge high fees for subscriptions to academic journals, making the research unavailable to the average person. “We feel that research that is publicly funded should be available to the public,” Weir said.

      While navigating copyright issues can be difficult for universities that are committed to open access, Weir said that UOttawa has been able to successfully negotiate with publishers. Nevertheless, open access can be expensive. MIT has spent over US$80 million on its OpenCourseWare site, and UOttawa has had to put money aside for some of its professors to buy back copyright for their articles from publishers.

      Although Capilano’s biggest challenge is its relatively small budget and the fact that its OpenCourseWare program is being run off the corner of a handful of professors’ desks, the school is dreaming big. Wilson wants to see all of Capilano’s courses offered for free on-line one day. And he hopes the movement will spread to other campuses and organizations.

      “We can’t deny our interconnectedness anymore,” Wilson said. “We’re all going to be better off by helping each other. It starts with a basic fundamental assumption: I should be open; I should share. You learn that in the playground, right?”