The Course of Open Courseware

Almost a year ago I wrote about the future of universities, especially regional public universities, as the internet — the content delivery system without peer or precedence — transforms the environment within which they operate. My argument then was, and is now, that, given the backwards shift — in terms of the direction we should be going — in education towards assessibility and normativity, that smaller universities will find themselves in the position of being facilitators/accreditors of “other people’s content” (OPC).[^1]

In a [recent post][1] in [*The Chronicle of Higher Education*][che], Kevin Carey argues much the same thing in light of Nature Publishing Group’s development of [Scitable][2]. The Nature Publishing Group publishes _Nature_ and _Scientific American_ among many other high quality journals, many of which carry an impressive price tag. Scitable, however, is free. Why? Because Nature thinks it can offset the costs of doing this both through corporate sponsorships in the short term and through the development of more scientists willing to pay for their other publications in the long term. (And the good news for the rest of us is that we can use their materials in our own classes.)

Two businesses, Caryey notes, should be worried by this: traditional textbook publishers and smaller public universities. The textbook publishers see the horizon and recognize their ship is sinking, but they are still collecting so much gold along their current trade route that they just can’t bring themselves to get a new ship.

Scitable, MIT OpenCourseWare, Open Yale Courses, the Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative, iTunes U, among others, will also challenge another group, for they

> spell trouble for people in the second threatened business: teachers at non-selective undergraduate institutions. Wealthy institutions in the business of sorting the most academically promising students and putting them in proximity to both one another and esteemed scholars will probably be operating in more or less the same way 100 years from now. So, too, will small liberal arts colleges that specialize in teaching. The future of everyone else is muddier. Although it’s hard to predict exactly who, how, and when, it seems very clear that in the long run, the number of organizations who decide it’s in their best interests to provide free open courseware will grow and the tools themselves will steadily improve. All of which is to say that if your career plans involve teaching introductory cell biology at a regional four-year public university or community college in 2030, you might want to reconsider.

Notice how Carey shifts the burden from the universities to faculty. It seems reasonably clear that the beachhead of administrators who have never published and taught, or who did so only enough to advance them toward a path in administration, is only going to expand into a lodgement, if it has not done so already. Because non-profits in general, and universities in particular, tend to be about twenty years behind in terms of current business theory and best practices, I think we are going to see a great deal of what was termed in the nineties “re-engineering of processes” in order to “align” various “workflows” with “assessment goals.” In this model, students working toward a degree are the boxes to be pushed through the pipelines and faculty are but cogs adding various pieces, skills and bits of knowledge, to the eventual machine to be produced. If those “bits o’knowledge” — can we just call them BOKs for now? — are already available as discrete units on the intarweb, then one doesn’t need a faculty member of creating bits (or BOKs), only a facilitator capable of transferring the knowledge and certifying that the transfer has occurred.

My, it just got dark in here.

[^1]: I think Ken Robinson, and others like him, makes a persuasive case against the mechanistic version of education that standardized testing in particular, and standardization in general, encourages. I am not, in principle, I should note against having standards, but for every standard I admire there is a corresponding set of standards and/or bureaucracy that enforces/polices the standard that sends me screaming into the night.