Open Courseware: A Look at 11 University Sites

Open Courseware, or OCW, has been around for almost a decade now. OCW is the term for free online courseware corresponding to actual university lectures (or, in some cases, other course material at a reputed university).

Some history: MIT’s OpenCourseWare initiative was launched in 2002; the term “open courseware” probably comes from MIT’s initiative. MIT’s effort was larger-scale, and more organised, than the first such initiative—that of the University of Tübingen, which made some of its lectures available online in 1999.

When we speak about “open courseware,” what’s referred to is free course materials (including online video, text, course structure, and exams, among other things) from the various universities and other institutions. This does not include:

  • “Free online degree” scam sites where the criterion for admission is a valid credit card
  • Online degrees from reputed universities including Ivy League ones, which are usually not free
  • Courses that can be used for credits towards a degree

In fact, we’ll list these in a later post, going into some details.

Why do some universities have free courses online? And, why are even more making their resources publicly available, whether as programs or as isolated study materials?

Well, online courses increase visibility and transparency. They also improve credibility and standing. Some offer course samplers to showcase their institution’s education. Some state a moral obligation to make at least some material universally available, given that current technology supports it. Instructors are, in many cases, required to pay a (relatively small) fee to integrate free courseware into their learning programs.

The OCW Consortium is the obvious place to learn about what OCW is. Here’s a full list of member institutions—that is, institutions that offer OCW.

1. BYU Independent Study

Brigham Young University’s “Independent Study” is a distance education program. Available online are many (almost 600) courses at the university, high school, and junior high school level. For the paid online courses, students can take course exams at a testing centre in the US; those outside the US can request a proctored exam in their location. With this, a student can get (transferable) credits for the course. The open courseware at BYU is (currently) a small collection; the OCW initiative at BYU is, as of 2010, a pilot program.

Availability through: Multimedia presentations with some video

Range of subjects: Small

Registration required (for OCW): No

2. Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie-Mellon University

At CMU’s easy-to-navigate OCW site, you’ll find courses in many (but not most) broad areas. Instructors can custom-create an academic course using these materials; learners can take the courses after registration.

Availability through: Presentations with interactivity, in most cases

Range of subjects: Large

Registration required: Yes

3. Harvard University Extension School

The Open Learning Initiative at the Harvard Extension School has eight courses available online; this number is expected to grow. The current collection is small but diverse, and serves as an excellent showcase of what Harvard has to offer. The homepages of some courses have a blog that augments the course.

Availability through: Video (recorded lectures)

Range of subjects: Small

Registration required: No

4. MIT OpenCourseWare

The range of open courseware features, and the number of courses offered at MIT’s OCW page, is very large; visit the help page first! Instructors can use the materials under a Creative Commons License. As of November 2010, there are two thousand courses!

Availability through: A large number of formats

Range of subjects: Very large

Registration required: No

5. Sofia Open Content Initiative

The Initiative, or the “Sofia Project,” is modelled after MIT’s OCW initiative. It’s currently in a pilot stage, and offers eight full-fledged free courses—expect more in the months to come! The current set is an excellent showcase of the scale of the Project and the clean design of the interface.

Availability through: Structured multimedia presentations

Range of subjects: Small

Registration required: No

6. OpenLearn from The Open University

The Open University, based in the UK, offers paid online courses leading to degrees, and also much free courseware. At the homepage of the University’s OpenLearn program, you’ll find courses in many (but not most) broad areas, including education, the environment, some technical areas, and many areas within the humanities. Notably, apart from full-fledged courses, there are well-designed “units” on specific topics—mini-courses of sorts.

Availability through: Presentations that use many formats

Range of subjects: Large

Registration required: No

7. Tufts OCW

Open courseware at Tufts University is, in most cases, a trimmed version of the course as conducted at the University. There are currently about 50 courses.

Availability through: Webpages; PDF presentations

Range of subjects: Large

Registration required: No

8. UC Berkeley Webcasts

The University of Berkeley has online recordings of its courses dating back to 2001. There are only a few courses from the early few years; for the year 2010, there are almost 50 courses, the subjects spanning all the most popular areas—in technical fields as well as the humanities.

Availability through: Video in many cases (recorded lectures), audio in all cases (audio transcripts of lectures)

Range of subjects: Large

Registration required: No

9. OCW at UC Irvine

UCI’s  open courseware page features external resources, links and tools in addition to the course pages. About 60 courses, representing most broad areas, are currently available. There isn’t much video (yet). Some of the courses are highly structured, others less so. Some are full-length courses, some a few days long.

Availability through: Structured notes and slides

Range of subjects: Small to Large

Registration required: Optional

10. Utah State University

The USU’s open courseware is in a format quite different from that of the others listed here. For each course, there is a list of downloadable course materials (often a textbook), lecture notes, and online quizzes. Though well-structured in terms of pedagogy, the learner’s primary resource is the official course materials. This is in line with the mission statement of the USU’s OCW initiative: the site aims to make “course materials available through an open content license.” About 30 courses are currently available (November 2010).

Availability through: HTML and PDF (audio and/or video for some courses)

Range of subjects: Small to Large

Registration required: No

11. Open Yale Courses

Yale University’s OCW is very flexible in terms of the interface and what you choose to watch/read. The material for most of the courses consists of an introduction for each session, a pre-assignment, an HTML class transcript, the audio transcript, the class video in three different formats (which you choose based on the speed of your Internet connection), and the class handout/notes in PDF format! There are currently about 25 full-fledged courses available.

Availability through: A large number of formats

Range of subjects: Small to Large

Registration required: No