April 23, 2010

Professors without borders

To support open education, the U of C should offer selected courses online

On Tuesday, during his lecture before a packed house in Rockefeller Chapel, Bill Gates spoke about the need to improve access to quality education. In addition to citing our Urban Education Institute as an example of efforts that improve the availability of educational resources, Gates mentioned another important means of spreading the knowledge and intellectual energy found in communities like our own: providing videos of class lectures online. With many of our peer institutions already using the Web to share popular courses with the public, it’s time that the U of C embrace what has become known as the open educational resources movement.

Not every lecture would be appropriate for distribution, and cost constraints would keep the University from uploading the bulk of our offerings—Yale spends $30,000 to $40,000 for each online course. However, much of the cost could be defrayed by existing grants that support open education—including an $8 million donation from the Gates Foundation for institutions that make courses available online.

Whatever percentage of the cost the University shoulders, online offerings present one of the most cost-effective means of increasing access to education. If the University were to offer lectures online, anyone with an Internet connection could potentially learn about American Grand Strategy from John Mearsheimer or tune in to the latest in Freakonomics direct from Stephen Levitt. A system is already in place for distributing course lectures: the U of C participates in iTunes U, through which it provides a number of special lectures and videos for free. This is a good beginning; now the University should significantly increase its online catalog to include lecture sequences from classes that regular U of C students attend.

Beyond the potential to ameliorate wider access problems, joining the open education movement would benefit the U of C. Allowing people worldwide to watch lectures online would give well-deserved exposure to our best professors, and raise the University’s profile in the bargain. Faculty may even find that opening up lectures to the Web improves their teaching; one Yale physics professor whose lectures are online pointed out that “any mistake [he makes] would affect larger numbers of students online.” And while the online offerings wouldn’t change the experiences of U of C students—the great majority of those watching online would do so simply out of curiosity, and not in pursuit of class credits or a degree—regular students would be able to make up missed classes or shop for courses with ease.

Over 100 years ago, the University adopted as its motto, “Let knowledge grow from more to more, and so be human life enriched.” If we are to continue dedicating ourselves to the calling found in those words, then it’s time we fully embrace the movement towards open education.

—The Maroon Editorial Board consists of the Editor-in-Chief and Viewpoints Editors.