More than just talking heads: Musings on some facets of online educational content

An article in last week’s issue of TIME magazine sang paeans about the growing trend of making available videos of lectures by academics free and online. Among other things, the article highlighted the pioneering work, inspirational teaching and resultant popularity of academics like Prof Marian Diamond (a neuroanatomist at UC, Berkley) and her lectures which are available online on Academic Earth.

This post will examine the imperatives of these enterprises and look at the possible impact of such initiatives. But first, we should perhaps take a quick detour through the historical growth of mediated teaching and content availability to put these developments in context.

Education by radio has been in use for close to 80 years, particularly in areas of sparse population and paucity of formal institutions providing education, for instance in remote farmsteads in the Australian outback or across America – again in remote, rural settlements or regions where trained instructors were not available to teach specific subjects. Scholarly analyses categorised such interventions as ‘radio instruction’ which supplanted formal means of education delivery

In the UK the OU used radio programmes for the discussion of course materials, alternative viewpoints to those contained in the printed materials, source material for analysis and for performance e.g. dramatization of literature. The OU, in close collaboration with the BBC, of course has a rich history of both radio and television programming and a lot of this is currently accessible via the BBC-OU’s portal.  Academic examination would term this ‘radio education’ as this complemented the formal delivery of education provision.

Instances from the developing world include the Indian government’s experiment with the Countrywide Classroom, initiated in the 1980s, which ran on the national network of India’s state broadcaster for almost 20 years. Depending on where the individual learner was on the educational (and sadly, social and economic) ladder this initiative both supplanted and complemented available formal education.

The Countrywide Classroom now taken the form of three dedicated television channels focussed on higher education – Gyan Darshan run by IGNOU, the technology channel Eklavya and Vyasa channel (the new avatar of the Countrywide Classroom). Further to this, plans for a countrywide high-bandwidth network for interconnecting premier institutions presents new and exciting possibilities for upgrading the quality of higher education. This network, it is claimed, could ‘virtually annihilate distance’ and more importantly kick-start a movement for developing high quality technical content to support university students in any region on-demand.

It is the ‘anywhere’ and ‘on-demand’ – alongside the ‘previously inaccessible’ – features that also underpin newer initiatives like MIT OpenCourseWare. Initiated as a project in 1999, aimed at determining how MIT should position itself in the distance learning / e-learning environment, this became a new model for the dissemination of knowledge and facilitating collaboration among scholars worldwide, while contributing to the ‘shared intellectual commons’ in academia.

Starting with 32 courses in a proof-of-concept pilot in September 2002, the MIT OCW had published over 1800 courses by 2008 and these resources were being put to a range of uses by the over-54-million visitors to the portal divided among educators (17%), students (32%) and self-learners (48%). By making their educational materials openly available, it remains to be seen whether MIT can demonstrate that by giving away such materials it does not threaten the value of an MIT education, or that there may be something in the educational process that cannot be captured by being in class.

However, MIT’s former president Charles Vest maintains that the OCW materials ‘could improve teaching methods, regardless’. As stated on their portal, the OCW does not grant degrees or certificates and neither does it provide access to MIT faculty, nor do materials necessarily reflect the entire content of a course.

It should be also borne in mind that MIT’s OCW and the Open University’s OpenLearn, both of which use existing material from their respective institutions, use only a portion of it and it has even been suggested that the materials have been ‘thinned down for online consumption’.

The main challenge in implementing such initiatives was not faculty resistance, but rather the logistical challenges of determining ownership and obtaining publication permission for the massive amount of IPR items that are embedded in the course materials of MIT’s or the OU’s faculty, in addition to the resources required to convert the material to an online format.

However, most recently both commercial and non-commercial platforms have entered this arena. In March 2008, YouTube launched an education hub called YouTube Edu, dedicated exclusively to videos from over 100 higher education institutions that broadcast through channels they have set up on the site. YouTube’s reasons for positioning itself possibly involves revenue (as the Edu hub has room for one or two advertisements on its pages), social relevance and perhaps is also egged on by the rivalry that YouTube has with iTunes.

Since 2004, over 170 institutions have offered content free to the public on Apple’s iTunes U, which was originally set up as a means for education providers to distribute content exclusively to their own students. The partnership has led to a win-win situation for Apple, with universities deploying a cost-cutting distribution tool, and Apple’s products become must-haves on campus.

Academic Earth – one of 26 companies profiled in BusinessWeek’s feature on ‘America’s Most Promising Social Entrepreneurs’ – was founded with the goal of giving ‘everyone on earth access to a world-class education’. Their aim is to ‘build a user-friendly educational ecosystem’ that gives internet users around the world the ability to easily find, interact with, and learn from full video courses and lectures from the world’s leading scholars. Academic Earth’s attempt to bring the best content together in one place and create an environment in which the content is remarkably easy to use and user contributions (users can ‘award’ lecturers grades!) make existing content increasingly valuable and uniquely tagged for later or new users.

And online content is not limited to academic courses and lectures. (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design) started out in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from those three worlds and has since then become ever broader in scope, where the conference now hears from the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives in 18 minutes. then makes the best talks and performances freely available to the public. The more than 200 talks include the thoughts of pioneering technologists like Sir Tim Berners-Lee and celebrity social crusaders like Bono. An exposition by Prof Sugata Mitra, who some might remember from the Learning Futures Conference 2009, is also featured here. Click here for a futher, blogged discussion on what does and how some users are using the content it provides.  

What then are the pros and cons of such trends?

For institutions the online content attracts prospective students, keeps alumni connected and encourages innovation; and such benefits outweigh concerns about cost, intellectual property and supposed devaluation of elite degrees. With the advent of commercial providers, however, the spectre of the commodification of knowledge – whatever one’s views on it maybe – cannot be far away.

For individuals, if one assumes access to the internet as ubiquitous (which it is not, since only 5.6% of the population in Africa have access to the internet compared to 74.4% in North America), the possibilities of growth in learning online are endless. Knowledge, in its virtual form at least, is free to a few users.

Jai Mukherjee / 22 April 2009

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