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Education unlocked

MSU professors use open courseware to provide class materials for students

January 28, 2010

Since the early days of the information superhighway, debates have arisen about the fair way to exchange ideas and intellectual property.

Issues such as piracy and plagiarism have created controversy that still surround the free exchange of information on the Internet.

“Knowledge and material should be free,” said Ethan Watrall, a history and telecommunications, information studies and media professor. “It shouldn’t be locked behind these doors. Anyone should have access to it.”

Watrall has joined the ranks of many other professors at MSU who are promoting the free, public usage of course materials for classes. These professors have moved their course material outside of MSU services, such as ANGEL, and into blogs and wikis, where anyone — even people not enrolled in the class — can access the information.

“I disagree with ANGEL philosophically because it’s a closed system,” Watrall said. “It’s damaging to the education process. The courseware should be open and accessible to anyone who wants to take a look at it.”

The source

The open courseware movement was the brainchild of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT, which in 2001 asked its program leaders to post as much course material online as possible, Watrall said.

Many professors posted resources such as class assignments, online readings and syllabi, which led to significantly more attention from potential students, Watrall said.

“Putting your stuff out there for the world to see actually increases enrollment,” he said. “It gives students an opportunity to see how the teacher teaches the class — exactly what kind of content they cover — and they can make a more informed decision as opposed to a three sentence course description.”

To help promote public access to class materials, MIT founded the OpenCourseWare Consortium, of which MSU is a member, Watrall said.

Although MSU has made strides to promote open courseware, Watrall said there are many officials who don’t believe public material should be embraced.

“There’s a lot of resistance in universities,” he said. “What a lot of faculty and university administrators and deans and chairs get worried about is ‘If we give it away for free, we’re giving our intellectual property away. Will people stop taking classes? Will people stop paying us money?’”

Even if people are able to access course material for free, the university still won’t lose any money on tuition, Watrall said.

“We’re not giving degrees away,” he said. “If you want to get a degree from Michigan State University, you are still going have to register for classes. You don’t get a degree from looking at open courseware material. The financial incentives for the university or the institution are still there.”

MSU’s Master of Arts in Educational Technology, or MAET, program has been using open courseware material to recruit students, and the interest they’ve generated hasn’t affected the amount of tuition money they bring in, said Leigh Graves Wolf, the program’s coordinator.

“In terms of participation in the educational community and social networking community, it’s just a part of what we do,” she said.

“The content is one thing, but the actual experience you’re getting in our courses is another. That’s something our students seem to value as well — not just the how-to, but the why.”

The application

Although much of the progress in promoting public course materials has been made by individual professors, there are programs at MSU that have explored the new territory, Watrall said.

MAET is a graduate level program that openly recruits potential students by posting course modules and examples of student work on its Web site, Graves said.

“It really gives potential students an idea of what we’re about or current students something to point at to show what their education in our master’s program consists of and the types of work that they would be doing and ideas for inspiring other work that they may do,” Wolf said.

Allowing non-students to access course information has generated a lot of interest in the program, both from potential students and colleagues, she said.

Along with e-mails from curious students, the program has been contacted by educators who want to borrow some of the information on the site for their own classes, Wolf said.

“The way of the social world right now is give and take,” she said. “We’re content producers and content consumers.”

The connection

Watrall has been using different types of open courseware material, including screencasts, podcasts, Twitter posts, blogs and wikis in his class “History of the Digital Age” for years, he said.

When a new group of students come in to the class every semester, some struggle adapting to the online material, as there is with any type of technology, he said.

To make sure no student was left behind, Watrall said he filmed his own series of how-to screencasts, which contain step-by-step instructions for how to perform tasks such as logging in and posting on the blog.

“I’m not only teaching people about the history of computers and computing, I’m challenging them to be participants in the modern computing world,” he said. “When they’re using blogs, when they’re using wikis, when they’re using Twitter and social technology, it’s a tool for the class. But they’re also learning about things that are important for the history of computers and computing.”

History professor Malcolm Magee said he and his students have had some trouble with the class’s new blog, but said the positives already are outweighing the negatives in the blog’s trial semester.

Magee had taught large lectures before and said he struggled to find a way to connect with every student and make sure they were connecting with the material.

Students now are expected to contribute to discussions on the blog, post both group and individual assignments and verify information other students post, said Rob Eppler, an interdisciplinary studies in social science senior in Magee’s class.

“It’s like a constant ongoing discussion,” Eppler said.

“You’re not constrained by the hour and 20 minutes of a Tuesday and Thursday (class).”

The blog discussions not only help students think through the arguments they are making, but also serve as a way to proofread and learn from the others in the class, said Casaundra Birchall, a global and area studies junior.

“Everybody has to do something and we can all benefit from everybody else,” Birchall said.

Since he instituted the class blog, Magee said his public course material has been used by many other educators around the world and he, in turn, has been able to borrow from them.

“It’s nice to Google and find someone else’s (coursework) online in an open situation like this where I can borrow ideas from them,” he said. “It has the upside allowing you to participate in a national/international collaboration with other professors teaching the same subjects as you are.”

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