By now, books, articles and blogs about the virtues and vices of online distance learning are hardly new, and are frequently repetitive. But Taylor Walsh's Unlocking the Gates is different. She analyses in great detail the varied experiences of a small number of elite US, UK and Indian universities that, starting in 1999, began to offer some, if not all, of their undergraduate courses online to varying audiences. Walsh has done extensive research - including interviews with 87 educational and business leaders - in this pioneering, unbiased study.
Unlike nearly all other online distance-learning courses, those examined here were never offered for credit, much less for degrees. The institutions discussed here did not seek to replace traditional classes, labs or discussion sections for their own students. Their elite status protected them from demands for distance-learning courses for credit of the kind that are increasingly offered at less prestigious institutions, particularly in the US.
The first two projects that Walsh details were failures: Fathom, created by Columbia University, and AllLearn, offered by the universities of Oxford, Princeton, Stanford and Yale. Both began in 1999 and were designed to make money from non-credit courses. Fathom was marketed to the general public, and AllLearn to alumni. Unanticipated operational expenses and insufficient purchases would doom them, with Fathom closing in 2003 and AllLearn in 2006.
Having seen the light, universities designed later projects as free services that were open to all interested learners. The University of California, Berkeley's webcast.berkeley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's OpenCourseWare offer material from all their undergraduate courses to the public. Yale University's Open Yale Courses offers introductory lecture courses by 25 of its most popular lecturers as a showcase for the institution's talents.
Carnegie Mellon University's Open Learning Initiative has limited its offerings to 14 introductory courses. With the help of technical experts, lecturers redesign their course materials, embedding interactive features. The effectiveness of these classes is assessed vis-a-vis the same courses in traditional settings. No other institution has engaged in such extensive, and expensive, analysis or feedback.
India's National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning is a partnership between education and government involving the nation's most prestigious scientific and technological institutes. Its hundreds of free online and video-based courses are intended for the thousands of engineering students who attend less well-equipped technical institutions across the country. If the rhetoric of expanding democracy is pervasive throughout the field of open-access learning, the dream here is to create a virtual Indian Institute of Technology for the qualified masses.
But Walsh acknowledges that sheer altruism does not quite explain these institutions' investment in online distance learning. Fathom and AllLearn were both part of the short-lived dot-com vision of a wholesale internet transformation of the world, with riches for lucky investors in appealing enterprises. By contrast, all the institutions with ventures still in operation are in it to "brand" themselves.
Admittedly, none of these projects, individually or collectively, has yet made a significant impact on higher education. Yet it would be premature to write off their potential influence. For example, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill - a so-called public Ivy - is moving all its for-credit introductory Spanish courses to online status only. Meanwhile, as both public and poorer private higher education institutions face cutbacks, these projects may provide models for reducing operating costs and numbers of faculty.
Although clearly written, this book is not for the casual reader, with extensive footnotes on most pages. The excessive use of acronyms can be confusing, and they might better have been replaced by the names of the institutions. Walsh also repeats her major points too often. Nevertheless, it is a solid, pioneering contribution to the study of online higher education and will surely become the benchmark for later studies.
Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities Are Opening Up Access to Their Courses
By Taylor Walsh Princeton University Press 320pp, £20.95 ISBN 9780691148748 Published 26 January 2011