Technology for Learning | Feature

Pioneering Open Content in Higher Ed

With consistently favorable reviews from students, the University of South Florida's open content initiative is going strong and looking to expand, according to USF's Autar K. Kaw.

Years before most institutions of higher education would start paying attention to the "open content" concept, the University of South Florida's mechanical engineering department was already in the throes of setting up its own "come one, come all" approach to online information sharing.

Analogous to "open source," open content comprises content or creative work that--unlike copyrighted material--allows copying and modifying by anyone who reads and interacts with it. In the higher education space, open content has so far been largely limited to course syllabi published online and free for all to view and use.

Autar K. Kaw, took open source a step further in the mid-1990s by conceptualizing the first open courseware system for USF in Tampa, FL. He approached the National Science Foundation about grant funding but quickly learned that the higher education space wasn't quite ready for open content yet.

"At the time, the Foundation was funding laboratory initiatives, as opposed to those that supported classroom instruction," recalled Kaw, a professor in USF's mechanical engineering department. Kaw filed the idea for a future date. In 2001, he said he wrote another open content grant proposal, this time through the NSF's new Course Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI) program (which would later become the Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science [TUES]).

"We got the funding," recalled Kaw, who would receive two more grants through the program over the next six years, plus a $40,000 contribution from USF. "That gave us some money to complete the open content project." That project started with two course topics out of a total of eight such topics, said Kaw, who modeled the concept after the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) highly publicized OpenCourseWare initiative.

"MIT had just come up with OpenCourseWare, and was putting syllabi and a few videos up on its site," said Kaw. "We wanted to do what they were doing, but we also wanted to add more learning platforms for our students." Those additional elements would come to include blogs, full textbook chapters, PowerPoint presentations, and quizzes and tests.

The USF engineering department's open content site is called "Transforming Numerical Methods Education for the STEM Undergraduate," and was co-developed with Florida A&M, Old Dominion University, Arizona State University, and Milwaukee School of Engineering. It garners 700,000 page views annually, according to Kaw, and is in "constant growth mode."

About 85 percent of the open content was developed by Kaw and other USF professors, and the balance was contributed by co-developers. "All of the universities we work with have implemented portions of the course curriculum," he said, "and have assisted in the content development, based on which classes they teach."

Kaw said funding has been his biggest obstacle since coming up with the idea of an open content hub in the mid-1990s. Online videos cost about $150 an hour to develop, factoring in the studio and technician costs. "Universities aren't going to put money into these types of expenses right now," said Kaw, "the economy is pretty bad, and it's just not on their agendas."

That's where organizations like the National Science Foundation come into play, said Kaw, who pointed to schools like Yale University, MIT, and Carnegie Mellon University--all of which developed their open courseware with foundational support. "I'm sure some local monies have gone into these projects," said Kaw, "but I don't think open content would be where it is now in higher education if it weren't for the foundation grants."

Faculty resistance to open content is another challenge that schools grapple with when introducing the concept, said Kaw. "This is proprietary information being taught by someone who might be afraid to put the content and notes online and then kiss them goodbye," said Kaw, who drew an analogy to the individual who takes a video camera into a movie theatre.

"Taking a camera into a theatre threatens the movie producers' and theatres' business models," said Kaw. "They have to make money to survive." To avoid a similar scenario in the higher education space, Kaw said, the best way to deal with concerned faculty members is by uploading classroom captures to a secure site, and then removing them at the end of the semester according to an agreed-upon contract. "That way, all parties win," said Kaw, "including the university administration, professors, and students."

Kaw, who continually receives 95 percent positive feedback from students using the open content system (via surveys he conducts at the end of each class for assessment and grant purposes), said he's currently developing two new course topics that will be uploaded by end of the year. Kaw will also add more online video to the mix and experiment with YouTube videos as teaching tools.

"I'm going to break the class into two sections, one of which will be taught in a classroom format, and the other online via video," said Kaw, "to determine the role the instructor plays in student satisfaction and course perception. The results should be interesting."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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