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Take a free seat in the lecture hall

Teachers - and pupils - now have unprecedented access to university-level material online, but what's out there? Michael Shaw reports

Teachers - and pupils - now have unprecedented access to university-level material online, but what's out there? Michael Shaw reports

Schoolteachers are dab hands at getting educational materials for free. So it is no surprise that they have been at the cutting edge of what is now called "open education".

Any teacher who has ever downloaded a lesson plan from the TES website or watched a video from the Khan Academy has taken a step into the world of open education and open education resources (OERs). These are digital resources created for education that anyone can download for free.

Secondary teachers may use school-focused OERs in lessons every day, yet not be fully aware of all the free material produced by universities that their pupils could also find useful - or that their pupils may be downloading it already.

Pursuing 'personal learning'

The OpenCourseWare (OCW) Consortium, which provides material from more than 200 universities and HE institutions, polled 1,000 users last year to find out who they were and why they accessed the content.

Undergraduate students were one of the largest groups, making up 22 per cent of the audience. But for every two undergraduates who logged on, there was one school pupil. Indeed, the proportion of users who were secondary and high school pupils (11 per cent) was slightly larger than that of postgraduate students (10 per cent). A survey by a similar HE site, Education Portal (, had similar results.

You would not have thought it would be teenagers' idea of a fun evening to watch lectures from iTunes U and TEDx, or start a course in computer programming at a US university. But data suggests that many thousands of keener pupils do. This creates new challenges and opportunities for secondary teachers, who may find material for their resource collections.

Resources out in the open

The most common kind of open education material from universities is OpenCourseWare - free material taken from courses, which could be recorded lectures, topic notes, reading lists, assignment questions and so on.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology was the trailblazer here, announcing in 2001 that it would be providing all its lecture notes, lectures, syllabi and other material to the public for free.

Other universities in the US, Japan and Europe followed suit, many joining the OCW Consortium formed in 2006. This has 196 HE members, and a further 53 linked institutions and consortia, and provides access to about 6,000 courses.

The OpenCourseWare portal that has reached the largest audience, however, is likely to be iTunes U. Since its launch by Apple in 2007, it has expanded to include resources from 1,000 institutions, and more than 700 million downloads have been made from its library of 500,000 free lectures, videos, books and other content.

Universities, however, have tended to put only part of their material on there. So a visitor searching for MIT courses may only find four on iTunes U, but 2,150 via the MIT's OpenCourseWare site, the OCW Consortium portal and other mirror sites.

Universities have also suggested that they see the Apple initiative as a promotional opportunity and a way to access a more casual audience.

The Open University has set up its own portal called OpenLearn. Its decision to put part of its material online for free - on its own website as well as on iTunes U, the OCW Consortium and the TES website - might have seemed risky, given that its main work is providing distance learning. Yet its fee income rose between 2010 and 2011, in part because of an increase in full-time students on its paid-for courses.

The Open University has a wide range of short introductory videos on its OpenLearn portal, many only 60 seconds long, as well as interactive resources explaining concepts. A teacher hoping to introduce their pupils to astronomy, for example, might use OpenLearn's Wonders of Astronomy articles (bit.lyWwsUay), a virtual planisphere (bit.lyxMLVTJ) and an interactive guide to where we are in the universe (bit.lyXS23TK).

How it works in the classroom

Laura Dewis, head of online commissioning for The Open University, says she is unsure exactly how many schools are using the material on the OpenLearn portal. The first schools to express thanks were in Australia, she says, as teachers there began incorporating the resources into the virtual learning environment Moodle in about 2007.

Others in the UK soon followed, including an FE college in Scotland, which, according to Ms Dewis, used the resources to continue teaching a Higher National Diploma course after a funding cut.

"Many of our videos are introductory and at what we call 'level 1', which means they are ideal for A-level and FE students, as well as brighter GCSE pupils," she says.

The Open University's history in providing distance-learning material meant that it was used to creating resources for independent learners, she adds.

One teacher who has become adept at blending free HE-level material into her lessons is Millie Watts, of Richard Huish College in Somerset. For the past three years she has been showing her A-level geography pupils clips from iTunes U and OpenLearn in lessons. She has also set up a YouTube channel collecting such clips, and linked that to a Facebook page.

Her pupils often go to the Huish Geography Facebook page to play back, and discuss, the clips as part of their homework. The college was careful to set up a robust social media policy before encouraging such activity: staff are instructed on ways to ensure they have adequate privacy settings and are banned from "friending" pupils, while pupils are coached in online etiquette.

Ms Watts, who did a geography degree with The Open University, says that videos on topics such as volcanoes and tsunamis have been especially useful. "A lot of it overlaps with A level, and it helps them to have a much higher rate of engagement in the subject," she explains. "The moment they realise 'I can watch this on a mobile', you're away."

Ms Watts has also used iTunes U material from the University of Sheffield and the London universities, as well as from two universities in the South West that had close ties to the college - Plymouth and the University of the West of England. Although she uses some videos of global TED talks, she has found material from US universities less useful because of differences in subject-specific language.

She has encouraged her more advanced pupils to study larger sections of The Open University's courses on geography and geology. The experience of studying university-level material gave one of her quieter gifted pupils a much-needed boost. "It did wonders for her, and it kept her interested in the subject," she says.

Ms Watts is unsure how much OpenCourseWare material would be appropriate for pupils under 16, but says some videos could be useful for younger pupils.

The problem of assessment

What OpenCourseWare does not offer is accreditation, hence the rise of massive open online courses (Moocs). Designed to be taken as full courses, normally as part of a student cohort, they offer a form of certification or accreditation.

Coursera and Udacity Moocs were developed by Stanford University professors. Udacity offers 22 courses, which involve students being set electronically assessed tasks. Those who finish a course are emailed a free certificate of completion, signed by the instructors.

Students on Udacity's introduction to computer science course can also take a 75-minute invigilated final exam at one of a range of test centres worldwide.

Soon there will be a third option, "a secured online examination that will be less expensive". MIT has also gone down the Mooc route, launching MITx in 2011. Harvard University added its courses the following year, and the joint platform, which has since attracted other institutions, was branded edX.

"Unlike its antecedent, OpenCourseWare - usually written materials or video-tapes of lectures - the Mooc is a full course made with you in mind," a New York Times journalist wrote last year. "Videos pause perhaps twice for a quiz to make sure you understand the material or, in computer programming, to let you write code. Feedback is electronic. Teaching assistants may monitor discussion boards. There may be homework and a final exam."

While the courses are normally free, assessment often comes with a fee. But this is tiny compared with what pupils in the UK or the US can expect to pay for tuition.

Create the Moocs of the future

User feedback to open education projects has tended to be positive. But dropout rates on Moocs can be high. Coursera estimates that roughly a third of those who complete the first assignment will go on to finish the course.

One Udacity student blogger reported that less than a third of the students who signed up to his computer science course completed the first homework assignment, while only one in 10 completed the course.

The subjects available to study on Moocs can also be limited. While you can find free OpenCourseWare in any major university field, including obscure areas of the arts, Moocs seem skewed towards technology and software-related topics. It is easier to automate marking of a coding or maths problem than to create an artificially intelligent assessor capable of judging the quality of a humanities essay.

Ms Watts is unsure whether many school pupils, apart from the most talented, would want to complete a Mooc on top of their normal study. "It's quite an intense period of time when you're doing a minimum of four AS levels," she says.

But schools may want to consider the possibility of creating a Mooc themselves. An online high school set up by the University of Miami became the first to launch a Mooc especially for school pupils in November. The University of Miami Global Academy now offers a free, three-week course, in which pupils sit in virtually on six live sessions to prepare them for the US SAT subject test in biology.

It can only be a matter of time before a UK school follows suit.


- The TES website

- The Open University's OpenLearn

- OpenCourse Ware Consortium


- MIT Open CourseWare

- Udacity

- Coursera

- edX

- Peer 2 Peer University

- University of the People



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