Open Access to Teaching Materials?

Should we follow the shining example of MIT and share nearly all our course content on the web for free?

Way back in 2001, pre FaceBook and YouTube, if you can remember such a time, MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) proposed a simple yet revolutionary idea, OpenCourseWare (OCW). They would share nearly all of their course content on the web for free. Why did they decide to do this? Their motivation they say was integral to their mission: ‘to advance knowledge and better serve the nation and the world’. The cynic in me instantly cries ‘but what was their real motivation?’ Clever marketing to boost student recruitment? To be open education pioneers? A grand government conspiracy to advance knowledge only in STEM subjects, neglecting the arts? However, I’ve come to the conclusion that their motivation was purely altruistic, certainly initially at least. Furthermore, they were so confident in the quality of their teaching materials, they chose to showcase them to the world.
 It was certainly a bold move, spearheading the whole MOOC movement and the drive for HE institutions to be more socially responsible. Today, MIT publish materials from over 2400 courses and OCW receives over 2 million visitors per month from all over the world, their audience divided among students, educators and self-learners. Their materials are impressive too, including video lectures, assignments, reading lists and exam papers for every course. They sustain this partly through corporate sponsorship and donations from the public.
 So, this got me thinking, why doesn’t every University do this? What are we so afraid of? MIT have not reported a drop in student numbers since they launched OCW. On the contrary, their applications are through the roof as potential students can ‘try before they buy’. Here at Manchester University, would we ever consider an open alternative to Blackboard as Sam Aston discusses in her blog post?
 This blog post will explore the arguments for and against the MIT open knowledge model (as I understand them!).

Expanded access to learning

Of course this is greatest advantage. Anyone, anywhere in the world, can access the course materials, free of charge. Students at other institutions can supplement their learning through the use of additional resources. Educators have a readily accessible repository of quality materials to reuse and under the Creative Commons Licence, even remix and repackage to suit their needs. Self-learners can expand their knowledge, enhance career prospects and even change the world. From a social responsibility perspective, the model removes affordability and accessibility barriers to education and blurs the distinction between formal and informal learning. Those learners who could not afford a formal University qualification now have access to the knowledge and to quote Francis Bacon ‘knowledge is power’ or is it? What if that knowledge is taken out of context or misconstrued? (more on that later!).

However, has the open education movement really expanded access to learning to include for example, self-learners from developing countries without a formal education. MIT OCW does not require you to register so they do not publish demographic information about their learners. However, as this Guardian article points out, MOOCs have not been entirely successful in their mission to make education accessible to all. The data show that most MOOC participants are white, male, educated to at least degree level and living in a developed country.


Since the dawn of the Internet, Open Education Resources (OERs) as opposed to the traditional textbook, are easy to distribute at little or no cost to the recipient, however, you have to know where to find them. Laura Bond Sykes discusses the discoverability of OERs and how sometimes it is easier to start from scratch rather than trying to find what you’re looking for. However, if all HE institutions followed the shining example of MIT and published most of their teaching materials online, we would know where to look. We would quickly determine which institutions published the best materials for our subject and head there for inspiration. We could even produce materials in collaboration with other universities.

Enhancement of regular course content

As an eLearning Technologist, this is of most interest to me. I shall endeavour to explain why! At present, the course units hosted on Blackboard at Manchester University fall into three broad categories, fully online, blended or direct taught. As you would expect, those units delivered entirely online have the most impressive resources, including audio and video materials and collaborative tools, such as discussion board and wikis. Generally speaking, for direct taught units, Blackboard is used as a repository for lecture notes and reading lists (I have to point out that this is not always the case!) However, today’s digitally native student (pardon the cliché) expects much more than this. If we knew that all our course materials were going to be published on the web, would this not enhance quality and stimulate innovation?

I have recently developed an online course unit whereby the course content (mostly narrated slides, video interviews and self-reflective quizzes) is external to Blackboard on SoftChalk (content creation software). In theory, we could therefore, share this with anyone, in that, you do not need a University IT account to access it. However, to contribute to the discussion boards, submit the assignments and receive any guidance and feedback from the course facilitators, you do need to access Blackboard, so thus must be a paying, registered student of the course.
 We have essentially published an interactive, online textbook which we can continually improve and review.

Alumni and industry ties

Why should access to teaching materials suddenly stop as soon as a student reaches the end of their course or even academic year? Surely, we should be promoting lifelong learning and as our graduates embark on their careers offer them continued access to the resources. We don’t even share materials across the University, a pharmacy student for example cannot access materials on infection control (which is a nursing course unit) because they are not enrolled on that unit, even though the materials could be of considerable interest and benefit to them. Furthermore, a clinician in the NHS interested in collaborating with us cannot access any of our materials unless we can arrange an IT account for them (which isn’t easy if the person in question is not staff/student). If access to our teaching materials was open, all these problems would be solved. The model I discussed above seems to be the perfect solution, the course content is freely available as a ‘living’ textbook which is periodically reviewed and updated but to access the interactive elements of the course (whether that be face to face lectures and seminars or online discussion boards) you must be a fee paying registered student.

The whole is greater than the sum of its’ parts

When I’ve asked the question ‘should we make all of our teaching materials open access?’ of a few of my colleagues, the answer has been a resolute ‘absolutely not!’ for a variety of reasons. One colleague in particular talked about how for a direct taught unit the materials on their own wouldn’t mean anything to anyone. A PowerPoint presentation without an associated transcript and/or podcast/video lecture is not much use unless maybe you’re an educator looking to write your own script. Even if we provided the podcasts and/or transcripts, there is so much more to a university education than attending the lectures. There is the invaluable discussion and collaboration that takes place in seminar groups and the personal feedback and guidance given by course tutors. This is what the fee paying student would get as opposed to everyone else and of course, the course credits and the qualification. The inherent danger in giving access to teaching materials is that they could be taken out of context of the whole course, for example, to understand the lecture you may need to have received feedback on the latest assignment or attended the latest seminar. Is a single teaching resource ever completely standalone when it is part of something greater?
 I think it also depends on the subject in question, some subjects lend themselves to the MIT OCW model better than others. MIT specialise in computer science, maths and technology, more theoretical subjects that are better suited to online delivery and the self-learner. The most successful MOOCs have been in machine learning and artificial intelligence (Rodriguez 2012). More practical, skills based subjects can be difficult to learn online. Student nurses and midwives not only attend lectures and seminars but spend half their time in practice learning on the job, again reiterating the point that the teaching materials alone are only a small part of the greater whole.

Why would anyone pay 9k a year if we give it all away for free?

Again, I feel this argument is invalid as we are not giving it all away, just a small part of it to contribute to the knowledge economy, an ethos which has always been fundamental to academia.
 Students would still pay the course fees to gain the qualification they need in order to pursue their chosen career. To give a crude example, I could watch a YouTube clip on how to rewire a plug but that would not qualify me as an electrician, learning has undoubtedly taken place which is of value to me but nobody has assessed my work to make sure I’ve done it properly! 
 Sam Hemsley talks about the tensions between openness and ownership and it could be argued that through the current fee structure, students purchase the right to exclusivity of teaching materials, however, I’m not sure this is an expectation. The ongoing marketization of the knowledge economy and ever rising fees are totally at odds with the altruistic nature of academic openness.

Ownership and Copyright

Simon Hardaker talks about developing materials in collaborating with partner institutions, such as the NHS and then selling them to other Universities. It is impossible to see in this context, how we could then make these materials open access. The issue of ownership is fuzzy to say the least.
 Richard Landers talks about why fully open educational resources terrify him and it is the lack of control over what happens to them. If we published everything under a Creative Commons Licence, what’s to stop someone from adapting and misrepresenting the material to suit their needs, but still accrediting the work to the original author.

Students can ‘try before they buy’

By giving access to teaching materials students can see exactly what’s on the curriculum and whether it’s for them. They may have even engaged with the materials before they get here which can only be a good thing. Our materials should showcase innovations in eLearning and technology. Diana Laurillard makes the point that rather than investing thousands in developing MOOCs and other promotional materials, this money could be spent on enhancing existing teaching materials which in themselves promote our courses to potential students and industry if we make them freely available.


Isla Gremmell in her blog post talks about Reusable Learning Objects (RLO’s)and their role in higher education. RLOs are a form of OER and can be defined as ‘self contained, multimedia eLearning resources addressing a focused learning goal or aim’. Maybe, unsurprisingly, RLOs failed to take off as there was reluctance for academics to contribute to repositories. This could be due to the fact that the functional requirements of accessibility, reusability and interoperability were just too difficult for most busy academics to fulfil. David Wiley proposed the ‘reusability paradox’, in that, by making a learning object truly reusable (free from the context of prior learning) we are reducing its’ pedagogic value. If we were truly open and shared all our ‘unedited’ course content, this would cease to be an issue. We would accept that whoever chooses to reuse our content will edit and tweak it to serve their purposes. To give an analogy, as a former web developer, I would rarely write code from scratch, I would take some open source code from the web which some very generous programmer had chosen to share with the world, then tweak it to do what I wanted. It was a starting point or springboard for me and undoubtedly saved me time. Imagine the possibilities if the same approach could be applied to teaching materials, instead of educators all over the world working in isolation on very similar subject matter.


I think we have a long way to go before we all follow in the footsteps of MIT. MIT OCW has been such a success as the more fixed content of what they teach lends itself perfectly to this model. For less theoretical subjects, the teaching materials alone wouldn’t make much sense to anyone, removed from the context of the whole student experience of the course. There seems to be so many barriers to open education (cultural, institutional, economical etc.) I sometimes wonder why anyone bothers! But then that’s the beauty of working in HE, there are always mavericks trying to change the world for the better!


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