Why Share Online Course Materials?
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to talk with a group of faculty
members working with the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium. I mentioned
in passing my belief that in the coming years, faculty would be engaged
less in developing their own online courses and instead would be using
course materials developed elsewhere. One of the faculty members was confused.
"What do you mean?" she asked. "How could I use someone else's material
to teach my courses? How could those materials be relevant for my students?
Why would I want to do that anyway?"
A few months later I was in Canada at Athabasca University, which was
designed as a distance learning institution. Back in the 1970s their faculty
developed printed-based distance learning materials and supported their
students in a disaggregated manner through phone links. Now they use the
Internet for the delivery and support of courses. They are finding this
medium demands a great deal more time. One faculty member there asked,
"What is being done at other places to help reduce the amount of time
demanded of faculty using online learning resources?"
I think these sets of questions are related. Faculty need to learn to
use each others' online course materials, instead of replicating the effort
over and over again. There are many different ways this can be done. The
simplest involves sharing "learning objects." These can be short
animations or demonstrations of a particular point that an instructor
wants to share with students. An example might be the actions of sodium
and potassium in neuronal transmissions. Thanks to projects like MERLOT
(www.merlot.org), these only need
to be created once. Instructors can just direct their students to the
There are more comprehensive ways to share materials as well. Whole courses
can be shared. For example, the nursing faculty at the Community College
of Denver was on a very tight schedule to mount a statewide eLearning
program for potential nurses this past year. Given the scarcity of time
and resources available to build this program, it made sense to look for
opportunities to import parts of the curriculum. Rhonda Epper, who had
worked on the MERLOT project as it was being developed, was able to find
other institutions that were willing to share online nursing curricular
materials. The institutions did not "officially" exchange courses, but
the nursing faculty at the cooperating institutions allowed viewing privileges
to one another's courses in an effort to accelerate the course development
This past summer, WCET staff surveyed a very unscientific sample of institutions
throughout North America to get a sense of what was going on regarding
course sharing. We found that several institutions across the country
are using courses developed at other institutions. This is particularly
the case in two situations. One is when there is a need to expand the
number of courses rapidly in order to meet state mandates or student demand.
The second is when expertise in a specialized subject area is not available
at that campus.
If we consider the cuts to higher education budgets in many states, the
rising demand for postsecondary educational services, as well as the average
age of our current college and university faculty members, it makes sense
to me that we will be seeing more and more cases of the second situation
mentioned above. As more high-quality academic content comes online, it
makes little sense to have every person who teaches students in an online
environment produce their own materials. It may well be that my acquaintance
in Connecticut who asked such telling questions is already looking over
the course materials that MIT posted online in October for gems she can
incorporate in the materials she shares with her students.