• September 1, 2015

Why Some Elite Colleges Give Away Courses Online

Why Some Elite Colleges Give Away Courses Online 1

Courtesy of Taylor Walsh

Taylor Walsh

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Courtesy of Taylor Walsh

Taylor Walsh

Foundations and universities have spent a fortune producing freely available online course materials. This week a new book, Unlocking the Gates (Princeton University Press), takes stock of that movement by focusing on some of its most high-profile players and their online successes and failures.

The author, Taylor Walsh, is a research analyst with Ithaka S+R, the research division of the nonprofit Ithaka consulting group, which supported the project together with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The Chronicle asked Ms. Walsh to discuss what she had learned about the online ventures of MIT, Yale, Carnegie Mellon, and other universities.

Q. Your book opens with two online-education busts that date back to the late 1990s: Fathom, led by Columbia University, and AllLearn, which included Oxford, Princeton, Stanford. and Yale. What was the influence of those failed ventures, designed to make money from noncredit courses, on the subsequent movement to give away online course materials at places like Yale?

A. As opposed to seeing recorded versions of their courses as a product to sell, they saw it as a service to offer. That's the main take-away from Fathom and AllLearn: that at this moment, enrichment courses, no matter how prestigious the institution they come from, aren't a viable product to sell if you expect to make money, and that perhaps the true power here lies in the ability to share openly and the ability to give it away.

Q. After interviewing over 80 people and surveying the open-education landscape, can you generalize about what impact the movement has had? Your book includes a striking quote from Ira Fuchs, a former program officer who oversaw the MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) grant at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation: "If you take away OCW completely, I'm not sure that higher education would be noticeably different."

A. What's most striking to me is how difficult these projects have found it to gauge the impact of an open and free resource. They're really carving out new territory. And they're working without existing benchmarks and metrics. I think it's really important that those sorts of benchmarks and metrics be developed, as do the project leaders.

Q. Some of these projects are very popular, but is there evidence of their learning effectiveness?

A. That's part of what makes the OLI [Open Learning Initiative, based at Carnegie Mellon University] so unique, is that built into the environment itself, that accomplishes the teaching, is the mechanism for assessment. ... They have given a control group and a variable group the same final, and found that the students using OLI aren't hurt in the slightest by not having had the same level of in-person instruction—that the system did just as well, if not better, at teaching them this material. ... Beyond those two studies, there really hasn't been a systematic appraisal of learning outcomes based on openly available material writ large. No one disputes that these open-courseware initiatives have done much good. But it's impossible, with the currently available data, to determine how much good.

Q. The project that seems to have the most potential—the interactive, feedback-driven courses from Carnegie Mellon—has low usage rates relative to other programs. You also write that it has run out of discretionary funds for new Carnegie Mellon courses. Discuss these challenges, and where you see OLI going.

A. There's not much "edu-tainment" to be found in the Carnegie Mellon courses. It's really about wanting to learn introductory statistics, and going step-by-step through these modules influenced by cognitive science. It's not going to attract the volume of usage, or necessarily the attention from reporters, that a much more easily consumable humanities lecture video might. ... The concept of a sophisticated learning environment, in which a learner can really master concepts without the support of a live instructor—I think that will endure. If anything, we'll see more of it. The ability to deploy an environment like that could really allow universities to teach a great deal of students at a very high level of efficacy and quality, while saving space and faculty time.

Q. You write that "the selective universities that have been the trailblazers in developing these courseware materials for the general public have been among the most reluctant to use them to reform their own pedagogical approaches." Do you think such colleges will ever embrace for-credit e-learning in a serious way?

A. There are some signs of change, particularly coming out of highly selective public universities: University of North Carolina Chapel Hill [moving] their introductory Spanish course to online only, and then the project out of California to pilot a set of online courses that could be used to teach undergraduates throughout the UC system. Should experiments like those go well, that could really constitute a major vote of confidence in the medium of online teaching.

Q. You write that projects at Columbia and MIT arose in part because those universities did not want to be eclipsed online. And later, other universities may have resisted joining the OpenCourseWare Consortium because they did not want to be seen as following MIT. How did competition among colleges influence the projects in your book?

A. [Early on] there wasn't yet any right answer as to what a university presence online would be. There was a bit of a race to get there first, and to set that standard. That motivated a lot of these efforts in that earliest phase. With the free projects that followed, they seem to learn from and engage in healthy competition with one another. New players want to do something distinctive. As new ideas arise, those that have been there for a while tend to evolve accordingly. ... When MIT OCW started, it was very text-based. ... The great success of the Open Yale Courses project, and all the attention that Yale's received from the press and from users for how beautiful and user-friendly its video content is, may have pushed MIT toward exploring more video for itself.


1. jwr12 - January 20, 2011 at 09:19 am

Thank you for the story, but I still am wondering what the answer to the question in the headline is. Why give the courses away? I understand that some people think that this is a noble thing. And I guess it is. But there are questions. 1) Is this give away a Trojan horse which ultimately will allow "elite" institutions to simply replace local ones? 2) Is this model reconcilable with a diverse set of learning institutions, or is it a kind of educational "dumping," by which products produced by historically privileged institutions (and backed by corporate endowments) undersell and eventually eliminate the little guy?

Setting the standard that knowledge should be free and given may sound democratic, but is it really? Or is it another way of saying that knowledge production only belongs to those who can afford to do so, in a kind of noblesse oblige?

2. josn1940 - January 20, 2011 at 12:34 pm

I wish these online courses had been available when I was choosing a college more than 50 years ago. They would have been valuable as an aid in determining the degree of difficulty I could expect in a course at an elite university.

3. becauseisaidso - January 20, 2011 at 01:44 pm

jwr12: The point of education should be education...not keeping all institutions alive no matter what. If we can educate the public "for free" (which we can't, actually, but hypothetically, assuming the success and longevity of free courses and side-stepping the credential/evaluation issue), that would be a wonderful thing. If it resulted in Loss of Market Share, well, that's capitalism for you, isn't it? Not all businesses survive. Not all jobs are for perpetuity. Change happens.

4. jwr12 - January 20, 2011 at 02:04 pm


Well, first of all, I'm glad you say so.

Second of all, I guess I don't care whether "that's capitalism, isn't it." I don't build my future around whether something is or is not capitalism.

Third of all, so you're saying that "education" is possible without a diversified network of institutions? Perhaps, if by "education" we mean the distribution of knowledge products created by one center, which (as I mentioned) will de facto mean the production of knowledge at places that have already accumulated significant monetary and cultural capital.

You cast my position as one that's based on greed about market share and job security. But that seems just like an ad hominem attack on my interests that presumes that the other side is solely on the side of angels ("education for education"). Perhaps you could reflect on your own issues of self interest. In any event, however, I repeat my question: do the makers of OCW care about the existence of a diversified network of knowledge producers (teachers, researchers, writers, etc.) or don't they?

Because from my end I simply cannot acknowledge that a world where knowledge is produced in one place and transported via tubes everywhere else is a democratic advance in education, or even an education as I would recognize the term. So if OCW has not thought of this issue, I think they have a moral (if not capitalist) obligation to do so.

I should also point out that your hypothetical idea of a "free" education will always be that -- hypothetical. In the real world, things cost money, time and resources. Where will they come from? I also don't want utopias about the coming "free" world of disembodied, delocalized "education for all" to help create the dystopia of centralized knowledge production sucking up all the resources (or, for that matter, justifying the reinvestment of resources in other areas than education).

5. maxbini - January 20, 2011 at 07:25 pm

I found the answer from Ms Taylor Walsh quite telling and, not having read her book, wonder what it is based upon (conjecture or academic honesty)?:
"As opposed to seeing recorded versions of their courses as a product to sell, they saw it as a service to offer. That's the main take-away from Fathom and AllLearn: that at this moment, enrichment courses, no matter how prestigious the institution they come from, aren't a viable product to sell if you expect to make money, and that perhaps the true power here lies in the ability to share openly and the ability to give it away."

This suggests to me that the main offerings are humanities taster courses and these are seen as less relevant as they are financially unviable and the hope is that they can be used as bait to attract enrolments to "real" courses.

If this is the case then it is troublesome, not only as it undermines Liberal Arts but also the benefits these courses provide - to list a few; open mindedness, critical thinking, cultural and historical awareness. Also it is blatantly false as enrolments and satisfaction for such courses has always been quite good.

6. dale1 - January 20, 2011 at 08:35 pm


My take-away from your excerpt is not that the humanities are less economically viable (after all - humanities faculty are relatively cheap, and their classes are relatively large); but that what sells is not the education but the credential. What people who go to HYPS and the like get is (hopefully) an education, what they get of enduring social and in many (most?) cases is economic value. The education is not what is valued, it's the credential itself.

7. maxbini - January 21, 2011 at 12:51 am


Without specifying the point you are making I was thinking around it in the background. The two points are linked - economic value and the vocational outcomes of the credential are often equated. Administration (and students) often seem to see the costs of a course as tied to its perceived vocational outcomes. Even if Liberal Arts courses are seen as cheaper to run they are also often seen as taking enrolments away from other courses with higher fees. (I am thinking from an Australian perspective but believe this is replicated globally.)
My perspective, which you do seem to share but correct me if I am wrong, is that it is a mistake to consider short-term employment outcomes as against a versatile education. Most reports on what employers want of graduates that I have seen have stressed being able to learn on the job and with changing circumstances and new technology and approaches.

8. jungianscholar - January 21, 2011 at 09:53 am

I am intrigued by why these elite universities would wish to give away free online courses, for no credit, that most likely incurred a significant cost in developing. I am in my early sixties, with a B.A., two Masters, and a Ph.D. I would like to earn another Ph.D. or PsyD. in order to practice psychology, however can't afford to go further into debt, as I am struggling to pay my current student loans of $150,000! I returned to school for my Ph.D. in my early fifties, and took 6 years to complete.

IF I could receive credit, even as a senior, from these schools, then I would be able to complete some of my Ph.D. classes, and possibly find a private or state school, through which I could complete my degree. The advantage for me, and for society, is that I could then work for an agency such as the Veterans Hospital, help returning vets, and receive gainful employment for the next ten years. Many of us have gained so much in life experience, and developed skills such as counseling, that could still help make a difference in our society. This might be an alternative to what we see so much of today, of continuing societal fragmentation and unemployment.

Many others could also pursue academics that might help them reach their personal goals, through free credit classes. For the last forty years, American education has exponentially gone up in price, compared to most European countries, Canada, and some Asian/South American, while the quality of the great European universities, for example, Cambridge, Oxford, Edinburgh, Trinity, U of Paris, and Heidelberg, have kept the world class beacon of knowledge burning brightly. Many of the other schools of the world are now on par with the U.S., and in some cases, surpassing us, while so many state and private schools rest on their laurels, thinking that they can continue to do what they have done in the past, and their formula will keep working.

So yes, lets do something different, and have the elite colleges and universities provide credit for their classes - either for free, or for a contribution price based on income or ability.

9. lisamm - January 21, 2011 at 11:05 am

This will be an interesting read, I'm sure, but Walsh's assertion that "enrichment courses, no matter how prestigious the institution they come from, aren't a viable product to sell if you expect to make money" is simply false. Harvard Extension offers successful noncredit enrichment courses, and Penn recently offered a highly successful non-credit enrichment course. Their efforts demonstrate an indisputable viability in the marketplace. Keep in mind that open courses were neither funded nor designed to generate revenue streams.

In my opinion, one of the most interesting recent developments with the OER projects is their move to become more social, albeit in a relatively unstructured way. Yale, NYU and MIT, for example, have added/are adding Open Social to some of their open courses. I think it's only a matter of time until schools can identify viable business models to support more social OER initiatives designed to demonstrate clear learning outcomes.

10. lpavlova - January 21, 2011 at 11:15 am

I watched Princeton's initial forey into for-profit educational courseware as an alumna. The courses were relatively inexpensive and quite interesting, featuring a few general education courses from well known faculty that could appeal to a wide audience. Their subsequent incarnation was in the form of freely available courseware that is particularly well advertised to alumni and what I consider a very effective pitch at supporting the wider network of supporters for the University. This establishes a very broad base of what is known as "Princeton in the nation's service" and includes continuing education and outreach.

As for some of the others, I can vouch for the continuing usefulness of MIT's OCW system. As a professional and an adjunct I continuously go back to their course offerings to tap into knowledge in disciplines related to mine, which helps me develop the means of communitating with colleagues in a multi-disciplinary fashion. This is a value (to the University and to society) that may not be easily measured, but that is there nevertheless. When I was working on a grant application with some faculty from MIT I found it phenomenally helpful to look at their course material as a way of understanding further their disciplinary strengths.

I guess what I would like to emphasize is the usefulness of fostering intra-disciplinary communication and knowledge sharing to education and research institutions (and that includes the scholarship generated in the humanities).

11. drkull - January 21, 2011 at 01:10 pm

I agree with jwr12. Moreover, why should it matter how a course is delivered? Are students paying for premium content, an educational experience, a credential, or for convenience? If anything, shouldn't the online option reflect an increase in price-per-course as the offering now includes the added value of an online component? Does this trend reflect the problematic perspective that continues a primarily financial view that regards students as customers? The "free-market" position is flawed because academe is already a regulated industry (e.g. accreditation boards), moreover academe is not just another industry, but THE industry that undergirds all others in national innovation, competition and productivity outcomes. Online delivery of education is a major industry disruption; we need to proceed carefully and not confuse value with its financial measure. Offering courses for free feels to me like a loss-leader strategy to capture market share and achieve industry dominance, not a sincere effort to provide education to those with limited means.

12. gahnett - January 23, 2011 at 04:30 pm

don't people gotta get paid?

don't people gotta grade?

don't people wanna go to the place that's the oldest and the best?

13. mchag12 - January 28, 2011 at 12:30 pm

You may be able to point to an e-student scoring the same on a statistics exam as an in-class student, but hat does not mean that the e-student is getting the same experience. This is not discussed here, even though the point has been raised over and over again. The college experience is not about just what happens in the classroom: it is about he networks that get formed, the student's relationship with the professor, the ability to access other resrouces while taking the class, the advisement the student receives and the relationship of that class to other classes, not to mention what happens once the student graduates. It is refreshing to hear a foundation officer admitting to what is obvious, since most foundations tend to bend towards the elite and forget what education is about. Even if at the same university, the student holed up in a dorm room watching a video of a class is not getting the same experience as that student watching the professor live and being able to interpret what the professor is trying to get across (God save the parents who are paying over $50,000 a year for their kids to sit in their dorm rooms watching a video- I will bet that these institutions don't allow that to happen). There is a reason these elite institutions cost what they do and the constant interaction among students and professors, access to resources (how does the on-line student get to the library to obtain a non-e available resource if sitting 100 miles away, if they are allowed that access at all, which they are generally not). The author misses these points entirely, focusing only on some vague notion of productivity -- the kind that is killing less endowed institutions as the debate goes on. It is another way that they are trying to convince those without the money and resources that they really don't need a quality education, and these efforts fit directly into the effort.

14. wowmarketplace - January 29, 2011 at 04:13 pm

I agree mchag12, you can not replace the sudent's relationships with the professors and other collegues, soical networking is key.

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15. matthewhamilton - February 01, 2011 at 08:12 pm

One of the great gifts or opportunities this information age affords elite educational institutions is the opportunity to open access to a global audience - and whilst for varying reasons, not everyone is destined for the Ivy League or MIT, the fact that these organisations are willing to freely share much of their teaching tools and make open to the international public some of their resources is a huge feather in their caps as far as I can judge. As someone who is involved in the training of highly motivated e-learning students, many of whom have to juggle their studies with multiple vocational and family commitments I am highly impressed with this mentality and am very optimistic about the dividends such thinking right at the very top of the educational food chain will reap over time.

16. ajacobi - February 02, 2011 at 07:22 pm

I agree with the last comment and the opportunity that lies ahead. Online schooling will definitely help to enhance learning in the future. When researching, I was surprised to learn how quickly the growth rate is for post-secondary higher-education and online learning: http://bit.ly/HigherEdu

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