Unlocking the Gates

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 March, 2011, 12:00am

Unlocking the Gates
by Taylor Walsh
Princeton University Press HK$240

Think of how much of your daily business is done via the internet. So can we get a university education - or at least part of one - online too?

Opening the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities are Opening Up Access to Their Courses tells of seven online courseware initiatives - their history, objectives, effectiveness, and so on - and discusses their values and implications.

The earliest initiatives were Fathom, a for-profit endeavour by a group of universities (including Columbia and the London School of Economics) as well as institutions such as the British Library and Cambridge University Press, and AllLearn, a not-for-profit initiative by Oxford, Stanford and Yale.

These two initiatives aimed to expand the institutions' realm of higher education to the internet - virgin territory at the time of their establishment - thereby setting themselves up as industry leaders. But these early conglomerate experiments failed - they lasted for three and four years respectively - and the moral was that individuals were unlikely to pay much for 'interest courses' online, despite their high quality.

All subsequent initiatives are still in operation, and all but one serve the differing needs of individual US schools. MIT's OpenCourseWare disseminates contents of all of its regular courses - in some cases, complete lecture notes and readings; in others, just course syllabi - online, free, as its primary purpose is to enhance MIT's reputation as a premier institution.

Carnegie Mellon's Open Learning Initiative is designed both as an educational and research tool; it explores how information technology can aid education based on cognitive science principles. Open Yale Courses takes a different route from MIT's model in that it offers only select courses - focusing on the humanities, Yale's traditional strength. But materials for these courses are not just taken from regular classroom courses; rather, they are tailor-made with an online audience in mind. Courses are designed such that users 'get as close as possible to having a full Yale College course'.

Lastly, the webcast.berkeley project by University of California, Berkeley, publishes video recordings of a wide range of courses; it was originally intended to serve only its own students.

Perhaps the most meaningful project is the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL) in India, funded by the Indian government's Ministry of Human Resource Development. In a nutshell, it seems more effective to improve higher education in India by having students take quality online courses offered by highly qualified professors from IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) than to build more new universities that are likely to have difficulty hiring qualified staff.

Given that NPTEL is the largest among the initiatives, its course formats evolve fast too: online students can now interact with their peers as well as asking course moderators questions, something not available a few years ago.

Unlocking the Gates author Taylor Walsh quotes Marshall Smith, former Hewlett Foundation education programme director, in the concluding chapter, 'these initiatives were motivated by the availability of intellectual resources at the respective universities more than by an identified, specific need on the part of the external constituencies. In other words, these projects have been driven primarily by supply, not demand'. This observation may explain the failure of the two earliest initiative. However, it may not be an issue for the other initiatives.

Socrates probably lectured in public without any teaching aids; lecturers two generations ago used transparent overheads. Teachers now use powerpoints - assisted by YouTube applications, iTune players, and other plug-ins. Yet a constant remains: face-to-face interaction between lecturers and students.

While institutions such as Carnegie Mellon may see online courses as useful for undergraduate programmes, all institutions offering online courses realise the value of real, instead of virtual, interaction in teaching. And there's the small issue of accreditation: taking online courses offered by Yale, for instance, does not take you very far compared with having a Yale degree.

The book fluctuates between being a scholarly and a popular read, and hence bores both educators and casual readers. A table summarising the characteristics of the initiatives would probably be enough to satisfy any reader curious about the subject; in any case, you are unlikely to learn much more from reading the book after reading this review.