Take a free seat in the lecture hall

1st March 2013 at 00:00
Teachers - and pupils - now have unprecedented access to university-level material online, but what's out there?

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). Descriptions of these vary, but the core definition is that they are digital resources specifically created for education that anyone can download for free.

Among academics there has been a tendency to see OERs as only a higher education (HE) matter, probably because they work in universities. But secondary teachers are likely to suffer from a different syndrome. They 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 be aware 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 on subjects ranging from agriculture to zoology, polled a thousand users last year to find out who they were and why they accessed the content.

Unsurprisingly, 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 (education-portal.com), had similar results.

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

University's open education projects also offer teachers a new perspective on how to encourage pupils to become lifelong learners. The main reason users give for going to such sites is not as an alternative to a course, or to complement other study, but for "personal learning" or "my own interest".

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 then 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 a directory of around 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, initially with material from Stanford University, it has expanded to include resources from 1,000 institutions, and more than 700 million downloads have been made from its library of more than 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 might only find four of them 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.

One university that has found the world of open education to be a natural fit is The Open University, which has set up its own portal called OpenLearn.

The Open University's 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 in 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 make use of 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). A further 197 resources from The Open University, specially chosen for schools and for teacher development, can be found on the TES website (bit.lyYGpOPQ).

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 but adds that the team has received many anecdotal responses from teachers. The first schools to contact the university 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 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," Dewis says.

The Open University's history in providing distance-learning material meant that it was used to creating resources for independent learners instead of content intended to accompany a traditional series of lectures, she adds.

One teacher who has become adept at blending such free HE-level material into her lessons is Millie Watts, of Richard Huish College in Taunton, Somerset. For the past three years she has been showing her A-level geography students 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 students 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" students, while the students are given coaching in online etiquette.

Watts, who herself did a geography degree with The Open University, says that videos on topics such as volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis have been especially useful. "A lot of it overlaps with A level, particularly with the upper sixth, 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."

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 already had close ties to the college - Plymouth University 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.

Watts has encouraged her more advanced students 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 students a much-needed boost.

"The confidence it gave her was visible in the classroom," Watts says. "It did wonders for her, and it kept her interested in the subject."

Watts is now taking a year off teaching to complete an MA, but is continuing to work as a social media adviser to the college, helping other departments to develop a similar approach. She is unsure, however, how much OpenCourseWare material would be appropriate for pupils aged under 16, although she says some videos could be useful for younger pupils.

The problem of assessment

What OpenCourseWare does not offer, however, is accreditation. Partly in response to that we have seen 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.

Prime examples of Moocs include Coursera and Udacity, both developed by Stanford University professors. Udacity currently offers a choice of 22 courses, which involve students being set electronically assessed tasks. Students who finish a course are emailed a free certificate of completion, signed by the instructors.

Since August last year, students on Udacity's introduction to computer science course have also had the option of taking a 75-minute invigilated final exam at one of a range of test centres worldwide, as a "pathway for students who need to take proctored exams to receive credit from employers, universities, and schools".

Soon there will be a third option, "a secured online examination that will be less expensive than the in-person exam".

MIT has also gone down the Mooc route, launching MITx in 2011. Harvard University added its own courses to the project the following year, and the joint platform, which has since attracted other institutions, was branded edX.

"Unlike its antecedent, OpenCourseWare - usually written materials or videotapes of lectures that make you feel as if you're spying on a class from the back of the room - the Mooc is a full course made with you in mind," a New York Times journalist wrote in November 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 themselves are normally free - exceptions include the University of the People, which charges an application fee of $10 to $50 (#163;6 to #163;31) - assessment often comes with a fee. But this is still tiny compared with the sum pupils in the UK or the US would expect to pay in tuition, which will no doubt make Moocs increasingly tempting for school-leavers.

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 fewer 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 rigour quickly weeded out the dilettantes," he wrote. "Fail midterms at Brown (University), and there is a whole army of deans and mental health professionals, plus parents out $25,000, coming for you. Fail your free Udacity course, and you're another slacker who couldn't hack it."

The subjects available to study on Moocs can also be quite limited - for now. While you can find free OpenCourseWare in any major university field, including obscure areas of the arts, current Moocs seem skewed towards technology and software-related topics. This is partly a matter of assessment: 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.

Watts is unsure whether many school pupils, apart from the most gifted and 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 explains.

However, schools may want to consider the possibility of creating a Mooc themselves in the future. An online high school set up by the University of Miami became the first to launch a Mooc specially 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 www.tes.co.uk

The Open University's OpenLearn www.open.eduopenlearn

OpenCourseWare Consortium www.ocwconsortium.org

MIT OpenCourseWare ocw.mit.edu

Udacity www.udacity.com

Coursera www.coursera.org

edX www.edx.org

Peer 2 Peer University p2pu.org

University of the People www.uopeople.org

Saylor.org www.saylor.org


The impact of open education projects on learning is hard to judge at this relatively early stage. Past research indicates that those who learn online can have a small advantage over those who learn only in a traditional classroom setting.

A 2010 meta-analysis for the US Department of Education of 50 studies, most with older learners, found that "students in online conditions performed modestly better, on average" than those taught face-to-face.

However, it also found that the effects of the different instruction methods were statistically equivalent. Where students appeared to have a far more significant advantage was if they had received both. This, the analysis noted, may have been for reasons other than the technology - students may have received different types of teaching or learned for longer, for example.

But the fact that learners could "expand" their learning more easily with blended learning was itself part of the advantage. Results were better for online learning if it was "collaborative or instructor-directed" rather than independent, suggesting that students may learn better with Moocs than if left to their own devices with OpenCourseWare.

Source: Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning (2010), US Department of Education.


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