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Instructor benefits and costs of contributing to MIT's Open Courseware (Preston Parker)

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Chris Pegler
31 October 2011 (abstract) (video)

Preston has been involved in Open Courseware early on and he became interested in why faculty would want to become involved in sharing their resources. Part of his job in the early days was to persuade and support faculty in making open courseware (evangelise) at Utah State University (USU). Instructors were not aware of what OCW was and could not see benefts for them. He could make suggestions (hypotheticals) for users. Part of the problem was that the focus on understanding motivation was on institutions, rather than on what motivated instructors.  

In 2005/6 he did a pilot study with USU and then put together a qualitative study with MIT as the case. He did interviews and gained access to their reports and raw data and including feedback (five years worth) which had not previously been analysed. Although much of that data was from students/learners he was also able to access educator/instructor feedback. As a result of this he identified seven benefits and six 'costs'. (Essentially what the instructors saw as reasons to get involved (or not) with open courseware). The data was mainly from 2003, 2005 and 2009 with interviews based on this. His slides have quotes from faculty.

Benefits in order of importance:
Improved reputation was the first of the seven benefits, even if its the reputation of the institution that is the main benefitificiary this is still seen by instructors as helping their individual reputation. Second benefit was improved networking - not many identified this, but those that did rated this as important. Without open courseware they did not feel that the meetings and connections would have happened as easily. Supplementary opportunities - for example contacts anout writing books or grants. Publishers were giving copy editing feedback on books from the publisher. The publishers (he found) were in favour, recognising that if the price of the book is right people will buy it even if its open, they will be more aware that it is there. Better quality was identified as a benefit of being open, (this is a benefit of distance education identified previously, (e.g. by Jeavons in 1987)  - making extra effort because others will see it. Note that Beggan at Nottingham University has observed that some academics are more concerned about getting the quality right for open resources than they appear to be for those delivered to the fee-paying students in classes. Feedback was the sixth benefit, as feedback not only on the open resources but also on the course appeared via the open courseware site and faculty felt that this additonal route for students to access materials was nice (and convenient to faculty) because students can access after the course - this saves faculty admin time to satisfy enquiries. It was also seen as a recruiting tool, not significant effect, but some students found materials online and then signed up for the course. Some saw an benefit working with the MIT OCW team - this was unexpected. (At the OU perhaps parallels could be drawn with working with the OU course teams).

Costs in order of importance:
The problems were more interesting especially the first of these: 'damaged reputation'. Preston felt that this was in part a consequence of the MIT approach which was that it created an instance of the course and there was then no plan to update. If you wanted an update you had to create a new course.  Also fair use problems damaged the reputation, giving a misleading impression of the quality of the teaching because taking materials which were rights protected left ‘a skeleton’. A few instructors found their material being used improperly outside the license. They did not like the extra time it took – its a hassle – to clear and embed the substitutes, to communicate with the OCW team (see cost 6 as well). Some saw this activity as unwelcome realignment of individual professional goals, they only did it because they were harassed, usually by department administrators. Public materials discouraged attendance at the class, running counter to what they were trying to achieve. Another side of this was that it made lecturers conservative about what stuff they would put stuff out in handouts or in public because of fears that this might be challenged by colleagues. Last was the working with the MIT OCW team – some found communications from this offensive.

Preston suggested that the possible future is that 'if the product can be duplicated digitally the business models of making money directly from selling it are disappearing'.  There must be some alternative value added approach. Its too much to police copyright, so the experience becomes important. He talked about a visit to Universal Studios.  You need the theme park experience, the video of the experience is a poor duplication. The money has to be made from the first few weeks and the movie needs to be good to make money on supplementary stuff. (I can see that this would create anxiety in teaching staff about the triumph of performance over the teaching – entertainment rather than instructional value), but the separation of the experience from the resource (with payment for the experience) is a theme which recurs in OER. Perhaps because the performance/service is the key, the payment of salaries to the performers (teachers) is protected – a major cost in education and much greater cost than that of textbooks (replacement of which the conference took as an important cost-saving theme).

His last example was about Bon Jovi – conversation with the bassist made it clear that the band did not expect to make any money from the records, which would be pirated, but on selling the T’shirts, concert tickets and other goods and services around the music. What is a tad ironic about this ‘take’ on open education is that the textbook or workbook would be the equivalent of the T shirt, and reducing the costs of these is something that OER activity in the US is clearly committed to. Who, or what will bear the cost of growing OER activity in a cost-cutting climate remains an open question following this last of the conference sessions. I simply did not find these last two examples helpful as education is not about the making of blockbusters or rock concerts or other one-off experiences. Really enjoyed the talk otherwise and was particularly interested in how the experiences and motivations noted in Preston’s research mirrored the UK experience.

Q&A: I asked a question about whether sometimes the ‘fan mail’ (associated with the networking and supplementary activities) got out of hand and became a disadvantage. This has been noted as a possible effect of the Oxford iTunesU activity. Some academics welcome the contact, for others its an unwelcome distraction. He felt that this was a price of ‘openness’. Whether faculty are all equally comfortable with the costs of openness returns to his research.  

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