Would-be learners around the world will soon be able to access a selection of Open University (OU) course materials completely free of charge. In a few months, a new pounds 5.6m Open Content project will see samples put on the internet for free and avail-able to everyone to be downloaded, copied and used by individuals and even other higher education institutions.
The materials will be taken from all the OU's subjects and will represent all levels of learning, from basic entry courses to postgraduate studies. But one thing the Open Content websites will not give learners is a qualification - to get this they will still have to sign up for a course.
"There are numerous benefits to putting our course materials online in this way," says the OU's Open Content project manager Dr Tony Walton. "It provides an insight into OU courses and fits very well with the OU's strategy for widening participation - its easy, free access means it reaches people who might otherwise not have been aware that they could study." He adds: "The internet is stuffed full of information but not only are we providing quality course material, it is structured and we are giving guidance on how to use it properly."
Visitors to the OU's two specially designed Open Content websites will also find "tools" to guide them through how to use the materials. Electronic conferencing facilities will enable learners to learn and communicate with other students accessing the same material.
The US-based William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has already donated more than pounds 2.5m for the first phase of the two-year pilot project. The Foundation, which according to its mission statement "places a high value on sustaining and improving institutions that make positive contributions to society", supported a number of initiatives in the rapidly growing Open Content movement.
Open Content is about sharing information - usually across the internet through a so-called "Creative Commons licence" -for the greater community good. The phrase is generally held to have been coined in 1998 by American graduate student David Wiley, who wanted to link the concept of "open source" -free access to computer software - with a similar practice involving any kind of creative work, such as words, pictures, audio and video published in a way that allows it to be copied or modified by anyone.
Wiley produced the first such licence to copy, and businesses and other organisations have embraced the idea ever since. The result was the formation of the international Open Content Alliance, involving such major players as Yahoo!, which set out a mission statement "to represent the collaborative effort s of a group of cultural, technology, non-profit, and governmental organisations from around the world that will help build a permanent archive of multilingual digitised text and multimedia content".
The OU has, of course, been making samples of its course materials free and accessible ever since the BBC showed the first Open University television broadcasts in 1970. More recently, it has been working with universities in low-income African countries to make its teaching materials available free of charge, through a project called Open Door which involves supplying materials electronically which can then be printed off for those without internet access.
But the OU is new to the Open Content-style sharing of information, as is most of the education community. The idea of putting learning materials online for others to share has been developing for only about five years, most quickly among universities in North America. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston was another recent beneficiary of a Hewlett Foundation grant - but Professor Andy Lane, Project Director for the Open Content Initiative, says the OU is taking the movement to another level.
"We're the first UK university, and the first open distance learning education institution, to contribute to Open Content," he says. "We have one of the biggest libraries, biggest archives of material to put out there. But the main difference is that we are not just putting something up on the Web. We're showing people how to get the very best out of it. It's all about learning and engaging."
The Hewlett Foundation will fund development and adaptation of existing course materials to put on two websites, to be launched in October. One has been termed a "repository" site where learners can access well structured learning materials. The other, "depository" site is where the knowledge-sharing element of Open Content comes into its own.
"The depository site is where educators can use, copy and reversion the materials into their own courses," says Walton. "They can use OU resources and the idea is that when they have adapted or developed them for their own use, they put them back into this open environment so the new versions can be used by other educators - including The Open University.
"This could be extremely useful to other educators - particularly those in, say, the developing world, where people can take these materials and re-version them, or translate them, to suit their own countries and cultures. They might then put these customised versions back on the site, which might in turn help the OU to develop its work in Africa and other parts of the world. And it's still all absolutely free."
It is indeed free - to everyone. So what's to stop an institution taking advantage of all these materials, building its own courses and passing them off as its own for commercial gain?
"When we first considered this initiative there was a lot of discussion about such a 'nightmare scenario'," concedes Walton. "Some people did have this fear that we were giving away the family silver.
"It' s possible some people may try to take advantage in this way but it's not very likely. For a start, we're not actually making available that much of our course content. The site will give users access to an estimated 5,400 study hours - less than 5 per cent of the OU's overall output.
"Also, I think the fact that we are actively encouraging institutions to use and develop our resources and then share their re-versioned materials with us will encourage them to do the same. It's also far more likely that if students see elements of an OU course and decide they want more of exactly the same, they will sign up directly with The Open University. I can see why people imagine we're taking a risk, but it's not a big risk."
Indeed, the number of people who follow through their experience of the OU's open content sites by signing up to courses is one way in which the success of the scheme will be measured. But there are many others.
"We'll be measuring the success in terms of the volume of users," says Walton. "Open Content usually attracts a lot of hits, so we'll also be looking at the number of people who are actively engaging in learning.
"But a main part of this project is its contribution to the research and evaluation of the Open Content domain," says Walton. "Indeed, 12 per cent of the budget will go to the development of knowledge outcomes in e-learning - to see how people are using Open Content and to see its impact on how they are learning."
And the project could help to shape the future, not only of the Open Content movement, but of the OU itself. "We have always assumed that our materials are central to our business model," says Walton. "This might actually show us that it is not the materials that people are buying from us, but rather the OU learning experience and student support. The research will shape our business model.
"It will help the OU to examine where its future lies. But most of all it will make learning materials available, free, to everyone. The Open University is at the centre of something of benefit to all."
'Some people did have this fear that we were giving away the family silver'
This could be extremely useful to other educators, particularly in the developing world'…