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 demonstration.

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 process.

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.

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