Free Online Course Offerings Grow in Abundance and PopularityFebruary 12, 2010
More and more universities across the country and throughout the world are contributing their full courses and materials, including video lectures, to their school websites as well as sites such as iTunes U and YouTube EDU. And the cost of these courses that are normally worth thousands of dollars in tuition? Zero. These institutions of higher learning say they're sharing their courses online with no charge to fulfill their mission of making education more accessible to the broader public, not just to students and educators but to independent learners worldwide. While users do not get academic credit for the free online courses, they now have access to an array of educational materials that were not previously available to the public.
University of California–Berkeley was one of the first universities to enter into the free online educational resources sphere in 2001 with itswebcast.berkeley.edu site. The program automatically records video of faculty lectures in courses across all areas of study. Since its inception, webcast.berkeley has recorded and published around 520 video lectures, says Benjamin Hubbard, the site manager. Berkeley was the second university to publish content on iTunes U in 2006 and the first to publish on YouTube EDU in 2007. Since its inception, Hubbard says webcast.berkeley has received more 100 million views, in addition to 9.3 million views on iTunes U and 13.5 million on YouTube EDU.
Hubbard says webcast.berkeley viewed the partnerships with iTunes U and YouTube EDU as an extension of the university's ability to distribute content on platforms that students and the public were already using. "Our aim was to broaden the window of access to education," he says. "Our mission as a public university is to make this educational content available to folks from all walks of life."
These online educational courses can also reach an even more international audience with the help of automatic captions, combining Google's automatic speech recognition with YouTube's captioning system. The YouTube captioning can be translated into over 40 languages, Hubbard says.
Also in 2001, Massachusetts Institute of Technology began its OpenCourseWare program. This provides nearly 2,000 courses, some with a combination of video lectures, lecture notes, syllabi, and problem sets. Between 2005 and 2008, the program began partnering with other institutions of higher learning in the United States and overseas. In July 2008, the OpenCourseWare Consortium was formed, with more than 200 higher education institutions, domestic and international, sharing their content on the site, says Steven Carson, the chairman of the OpenCourseWare Consortium's board of directors and the external relations director of MIT's OpenCourseWare.
Not only does the OpenCourseWare Consortium work to increase the number of free educational projects and courses around the world, Carson says, but it also brings educators together to create a broader, open-resources community and to establish principles of best practices. He says the courses are used by students, educators, and self-learners worldwide. While these online educational resources will not serve as substitutes for a university or online distance-learning degree, Carson says these free resources will continue to support the growing independent-learning community.
Stanford has also contributed free online courses to the Web, many coming from Stanford’s Continuing Studies program. The university was the first institution to contribute its courses to iTunes U in 2006. It later contributed to YouTube EDU in 2007. Currently, the program offers more than 73 courses on iTunes U and 53 on YouTube EDU. Also, Yale created Open Yale Courses in 2006 under the leadership of Diana Kleiner, the principal investigator of Open Yale Courses. She says there are currently 25 courses on the site, as well as on iTunes U and YouTube EDU, and another 11 will be published this fall. All of the courses include a full set of high-quality videos of class lectures as well as other course materials, including syllabi, suggested readings, and problem sets.
So what impacts do these free online courses have on the classroom experiences in universities? Hubbard says that at Berkeley, he has heard professors who post their video lectures online say that students in the classroom are engaging in a different way. Instead of being buried in their texts and taking notes, the professors say they can actually see students' faces listening and absorbing the lecture. The professors say this is because the students know they can go back and watch the video lectures later if they want to review material. Kleiner says she may assign her own online video lectures as homework and then incorporate the lectures into class discussions. She also says that thanks to the liberal licensing of the online courses, she has seen educators around the world repurposing the content to teach in their own classrooms.
These free online educational resources are also helping to break down the financial and geographical barriers that can limit access to education. "At some level, these courses are helping to democratize knowledge," says Dan Colman, the associate dean and director of the Stanford Continuing Studies program. "Suddenly, knowledge that was fairly specialized is available to anyone with Internet access. It doesn't matter how much money you have or where you live; it's accessible now."
The Down-Low on Online Downloading Sites:
iTunes U- This multimedia file-sharing site contains more than 250,000 educational video and audio files from more than 600 universities, including Yale, MIT, Cambridge, and Oxford. The launch of iTunes 9 has made iTunes U accessible in 77 countries with Apple Stores. Additionally, iTunes U content can be searched and wirelessly downloaded onto an iPhone or an iPod touch.
YouTube EDU- This education-specific YouTube channel created in October 2007 provides more than 60,000 videos from over 300 colleges and universities in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, and India, according to Obadiah Greenberg, the strategic partner manager at YouTube. He says the mission of the site is "to facilitate the distribution of open educational resources to a worldwide audience."
Academic Earth- Founded by Yale graduate Richard Ludlow in January 2009, the site has around 3,500 videos from 110 courses provided by 10 universities located around the world. Ludlow says the site has had more than 6 million visitors. He says the site hosts only select, complete video courses that have high production quality.
Open Culture- Dan Colman of the Stanford Continuing Studies program founded the site in 2006 to provide free audio books, online courses, movies, language lessons, and E-books. The site has more than 250 courses from institutions of higher education around the globe.
Corrected on 02/17/10: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the number of videos offered on Academic Earth. The correct number is 3,500 videos. Additionally, the earlier version may have given an incorrect impression about the source of Stanford’s free online courses; many programs at Stanford contribute to the university’s free courses on the Web.