Perhaps you visited Brighton at the weekend and were intrigued by the Royal Pavilion's ostentatious architecture; now you'd like to learn more about its history. Maybe you are a student who didn't quite get that complex topic covered in a lecture on Tuesday. You may be a scientist who fancies swotting up on philosophy for a change. Or perhaps you are developing a new undergraduate course and are wondering how a professor at another institution approaches the same topic.
In each case, thanks to universities, the answer is out there on the internet for free. Visitors to The Open University's OpenLearn website can pick up a 16-hour module examining the Royal Pavilion's relationship with 19th-century Romanticism and exoticism. The course includes text, film footage, images of 18th-century engravings and learning exercises. The uncertain student, meanwhile, can replay Tuesday's lecture on his or her university's iTunes U site. There, too, the scientist can kick off with an hour-long romp through the history of philosophy from the pre-Socratics to the present day with Marianne Talbot, departmental lecturer in philosophy at the University of Oxford. And the professor can download an entire course from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - including lectures, handouts, reading lists and assessment materials - to see how things are done there.
Around the globe, the provision of open educational content, or open educational resources (OER) as they are also known, is gathering pace. Thousands of hours of high-quality course and lecture content produced by universities are now available to all at the click of a button, prompting what has been described as a revolution in learning. And the UK Government and funding bodies alike are paying attention, launching a raft of funding and new initiatives in recent months - including one that will make the equivalent of 5,000 undergraduate modules available for free.
The story of open educational content begins in the late 1990s when, with the rise of the world wide web, universities were getting into distance education - and hoping to make some money from it. Charles Vest, then president of MIT, set up a committee to look at what it should do in response, says Cecilia d'Oliveira, executive director of MIT Open CourseWare (OCW). After several years' work, the committee produced a report that was, d'Oliveira recalls, "about 12 inches thick". The conclusion? For a university where hands-on engagement is key and undergraduate students work side by side with researchers in laboratories, it would be impossible to transfer the kind of education it provided on campus to an online environment.
But one morning, d'Oliveira recounts, one of the heads of the committee was taking a shower when an idea came to him. "He remembers thinking: 'Well, if we're not going to try to make money from our educational material, maybe we should just give it away.'"
The idea was radical, but it did not spring from a vacuum. It echoed the ethos of the open-source software movement, which seeks to put computer software into the public domain, as well as the drive towards open access, which aims to make freely available the findings of publicly funded research.
"When the committee brought the recommendation to Vest, he thought about it for about 30 seconds," d'Oliveira says. "MIT sees itself as a global university with a mission not just to educate its own students but to advance education around the world through our work here. It was a perfect answer."
The plan to create OCW, a website publishing virtually all MIT's course material, was announced in 2001. Today almost 2,000 courses, or 80 per cent of those offered by the university, are available online at no cost. The potential benefits to learners were immediately clear - but what was in it for the university?
Although the primary goal was to enhance learning around the world, d'Oliveira says, it was also an excellent opportunity to showcase the work of MIT's curriculum and its faculty.
"I think doing something that was so obviously philanthropic has strengthened our reputation around the world," she says.
A year after MIT's decision, Unesco held a forum on open courseware for higher education, which led to the use of the term "open educational resources". Soon, other universities leapt on the bandwagon. The global OpenCourseWare Consortium, a group dedicated to advancing educational content, now counts more than 200 higher education institutions around the world as members.
Today, the reach of MIT's OCW is huge: its site attracts 1.2 million visits a month, with more than half of these coming from outside North America.
So who uses the site? About 40 to 45 per cent of visitors to OCW are students at other universities who are looking for material to complement their course. Nearly as many are what MIT terms "self-learners" - people, usually working professionals, who are not enrolled in any formal education programme. Some 10 per cent work in education and are looking to improve their own teaching and pick up new materials to freshen their classes.
The site has helped create a lifelong connection with MIT for many, d'Oliveira says, and it is also a valuable recruitment tool. About 35 per cent of those who study at MIT say OCW played a part in their decision.
"The tuition at MIT is $36,000 (£21,794) a year - how many things do you buy that cost $36,000 a year that you can't go and look at and explore?" d'Oliveira asks. "It provides people with real insight into what MIT courses involve."
She believes OCW has also helped drive up the quality of teaching. "Faculty here are very proud of the work that they do. The idea that their materials will be seen by millions of people around the world encourages them to make sure their materials are really up to date.
"It can be very intimidating, even for MIT professors. One of our challenges is encouraging staff to give us their material because OCW is completely voluntary. Sometimes we hear from professors who say, 'I really want to do this, but my material isn't good enough yet.' So they will work on it and come back. I call it the 'sunlight effect'."
Despite the many positive effects, there is a downside: cost. MIT's open education content programme is probably the largest and most expensive in the world.
"It is a very expensive proposition, primarily because for it to work here, a lot of the work has to be done by a central office," d'Oliveira says.
"If the faculty had to do more than a couple of hours of work, they would not participate because they are too busy. We have a group of ten people whose job it is to reach out, work with the faculty and limit the amount of work they have to do to fewer than five hours for a course. In some cases, we take handwritten notes and have them digitised. In all cases, we take digital materials then go through them to identify third-party copyrighted material and figure out how to deal with that. There are some cases where we think a course can really benefit from some enrichment, whether via video lectures or by helping with slides, graphics or lecture notes. We put a lot of effort into it, and on average every course we publish costs us about $10,000 to $15,000."
OCW's annual operating costs are $3.5 million. Initially, the funding came from grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, but over time MIT has assumed more financial responsibility. This year, it will fund close to 50 per cent of the operating costs. Existing grants will run out in the next few years, and the programme is looking for ways to save costs, for example by moving its video footage from a paid-for host to YouTube. OCW receives commission from Amazon for referring visitors to its online bookshop, and is working hard to raise income from fundraising activities.
For The Open University, cost is less of an issue because the institution's courses are already designed for the web. With its decision to launch OpenLearn in the autumn of 2006, it became the first higher education institution in the UK to make its educational resources freely available.
For an organisation that had collaborated for decades with the BBC to produce educational television programmes, the move to open educational resources was perhaps less of a leap than it was for MIT. But there were uncertainties over OpenLearn. When MIT made the move, it knew it would not lose its unique selling point - its campus-based, "hands-on" education - if it gave material away for free, but the OU is a distance-learning organisation.
At an international seminar on distance, collaborative and e-learning held at the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia in 2006, Sir John Daniel, a former vice-chancellor of the OU and now president of the Commonwealth of Learning, an intergovernmental organisation created by Commonwealth heads of government, warned: "For a large, high-quality distance-teaching institution like the UK's OU to make its self-instructional materials freely available could create a clear threat to its core business."
However, almost three years on, OpenLearn has had more than 5 million visitors, and enrolments for paid-for courses at the OU are still strong. The experience of being a paid-up OU student is very different, because only registered students gain the support of a tutor and have the opportunity to take examinations and earn qualifications. The institution has also been cautious during the pilot phase of OpenLearn: although it provides free access to study units from OU courses, the university does not go as far as MIT and give learners access to entire courses.
One significant innovation on the OU site is its provision of two separate areas to cater for different types of users. LearningSpace, which is aimed at general learners, features access to discussion forums and a place to keep a personal learning journal. Learners can take away content in eight different formats, from "old-fashioned" print to RSS feed.
The LabSpace, however, is an experimental site aimed at educators and advanced learners. As well as being able to download material, LabSpace users can adapt and create new material, which they can then upload.
The geographical reach of OpenLearn extends across the globe: 70 per cent of visitors to OpenLearn are from outside the UK. An average of 10,000 study units are printed out each week, and another 10,000 are downloaded in other formats.
There are also strong signs that the site helps bolster recruitment. A total of 11,000 people have registered for an OU course during a session on OpenLearn, and students who find the university site via OpenLearn more frequently go on to register than those who approach the OU via advertising, word of mouth or online inquiries.
Some 6,000 study hours are now available on LearningSpace under a Creative Commons licence. This represents just 3 per cent of the OU's total educational content catalogue, but the university's target is to reach 5 per cent in the next three years.
From next year, a new set of e-production technologies will mean that open-learning materials are generated whenever a new OU course is created, which will also minimise the cost of preparation.
In a development that is central to its mission, the OU has found OpenLearn invaluable in encouraging more people to aspire to higher education. OpenLearn's research report for 2006-08 says: "The Open University has given a great deal of attention to the meaning of 'open' and its consequences. Importantly (and most relevant to the OER movement) the institution has no barriers to entry, no entry requirements - only exit requirements ... This makes the journey from informal learning (the OER domain) to formal learning (where a student might well wish to have some validation of their learning) a seamless and encouraging one."
The OU has fostered "community champions" around the country who use its web-based resources to help engage new learners who have not been to university or have few educational qualifications. Andy Lane, director of OpenLearn, explains: "Those who aren't sure whether they are ready for higher education can work through introductory material and gain some experience and confidence by learning in a safe environment. Many then go on to sign up for a further education or higher education course - and not necessarily with the OU; it may be with a local provider."
The materials are also being used in schools as teaching resources and to allow sixth-formers to sample different subjects. "Perhaps you haven't done philosophy at A level but you are wondering whether you might want to study it at university level - OpenLearn allows students to have a look," Lane says.
The web-based resources have also led to new approaches to working with employers. In one such instance, the OU was funded by the children's services department of a local council to create a workforce development programme. The council ended up with a "pick-and-mix" package: some staff studied on OpenLearn for free, others registered on paid-for OU courses; and the council also bought in training from local providers.
But there is still much more to discover about the impact of the project. A major component of the programme is evaluation and research.
At the moment, the most popular material on the site includes courses about Welsh history and its sources, addiction and neural ageing, Spanish, decision-making, understanding cardiovascular disease, the paintings of the Romantic artist Delacroix, and modules about music and writing fiction.
For Lane, the appeal lies in "just seeing what happens". He says: "You can have all these preconceptions of what might be popular, but it is interesting to see how people pick up and run with it."
Now the OU is working with other British universities to help them develop and share open course materials. In June, at the celebrations for the 40th anniversary of the OU, Gordon Brown announced funding to establish the Support Centre for Open Resources in Education at the OU, as part of a £7.8 million grant designed to enhance the university's national role.
The funding follows a separate grant of £5.7 million from the Higher Education Funding Council for England for universities across the sector to make thousands of hours of free learning materials available.
It is the first time anywhere in the world that a project of its kind has taken place on a national scale. David Kernohan, who manages the open educational resources programme at the Joint Information Systems Committee (Jisc), says it is a victory to get this sort of funding. "It shows that open educational resources are being taken seriously at a high level," he says.
Lane explains the aim: "The hope is that the sector can improve the range and quality of learning resources available. Rather than every university replicating and duplicating similar material, perhaps if we can do it more collectively, we can get some cost savings for the sector on teaching resources."
Before putting material in the public domain, universities are having to resolve the potentially tricky issue of whether academics or institutions own teaching material, notes Jisc's Kernohan. "A lot of institutions are not entirely certain. It is a good thing for them to be looking at and sorting out now," he says.
The arrival of iTunes U, a source of higher education audio and video material freely available on the web, has allowed many UK universities to test the water when it comes to open educational content in the form of podcasts. British institutions currently represented on the iTunes U site include the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Coventry, Edinburgh and Warwick, the OU and University College London. With the slogan "learn wherever you go", it allows podcasts to be downloaded on to mobile devices too.
The University of Oxford has just passed the million-download mark. Not surprisingly, information about the Oxford admissions process has proved very popular, attracting more than 30,000 downloads to date.
"What it isn't designed to be is a substitute for undergraduate education, which it is commonly misinterpreted as," says Carolyne Culver, head of strategic communications at Oxford. "We are trying to pick things that are of interest to a wider audience."
Much of Oxford's material is designed specifically for iTunes U, including a special six-part series on the credit crunch, derived from round-table discussions held at the university.
"Joseph Stiglitz (former chief economist of the World Bank and a Nobel laureate) did a podcast for us, and that was number one in the world for a few weeks. We add a lot of material every week. It is not just a case of putting lectures on the site, but being proactive, thinking about what the public would be interested in, and then approaching those academics to get them to sit around the table and have a discussion."
The venture has been extremely cost-effective, Culver adds. "The university obviously has a big reputation globally already, but it brings the material to a much wider audience."
Her comment about the content being no substitute for undergraduate education reflects a recurring concern: whether making lectures available online encourages students to skip lectures.
"I think some faculty worry about that, but others say video can help students," says MIT's d'Oliveira. "There are always going to be some students who, if they know there is an option, are going to sleep in and not go to class," she continues. "On the other hand, I think, and the research shows, that students can learn just as well from a video as they can from sitting in a lecture and listening to a professor. Students use recorded material if they didn't understand something when they were in class - it means they can go back and review sections of the lecture."
It has also led faculty to use teaching time in new ways, d'Oliveira says.
"The professors who have embraced new technology have said: 'I'm going to adapt my teaching style. I'm not going to do the same old thing in class all the time because if I do people might as well sit at home and watch the video. I am going to use the video as a tool.'"
Jisc's Kernohan thinks the issue of lecture attendance is a bit of a red herring.
"Putting materials online could potentially result in fewer students attending lectures. But I think higher education is starting to move towards the idea that it doesn't matter how the learning is facilitated; the important thing is whether it works for the student. I think that is a healthy attitude," he says. "What has been found internationally is that students are using these materials to supplement what is already available to them."
For Birmingham City University, which joined iTunes U in August, the move was seen predominantly as a marketing and promotions exercise.
"iTunes is great for profile," says Oliver Williams, head of the university's Screen Media Lab, who led the project.
"We've been up there for only a few weeks, but in the second week we had 15,000 downloads of our content. We wouldn't have got that just off our own website. It puts the whole university in a good light, and it is great for people to have a look at your university before they come here or apply - it really works."
Institutions pay nothing to join iTunes U, but Birmingham City University was asked to provide at least 250 pieces of podcast material.
Content on Birmingham City's iTunes U site includes a series on the university's alumni, a podcast on web design and a video aimed at student nurses about giving injections.
"The brilliant thing about iTunes is that our audience is already there. They can go from buying a game, buying some music, renting a film, to watching our podcast about Bluetooth without having to go anywhere.
"A lot of our content is learning material, but it can't help but be promotional at the same time," Williams says.
And it also generates some friendly rivalry between academics. "We've got a bit of internal competition about who is number one in the charts," he jokes.
The Edgeless University, a report issued in June by the think-tank Demos, argues that distributing lectures more widely "makes more sense for established institutions with robust brands such as Oxford or, in the US, MIT, than it might for other less-established or high-profile institutions".
Williams, however, says it is wrong to assume that distribution channels such as iTunes U make more sense for big-name institutions than for those without an international reputation.
"The Open University is a virtually unknown name in the US, but its success with content distributed via iTunes U has been phenomenal," he says.
"I put its success down to the excellence of its content. You just have to look at the top 100 iTunes U podcasts. The Open University has 11 podcasts in the chart, and Birmingham City University has a podcast on the web-design process charting at number . Neither The Open University nor Birmingham City University is a global household name in the same way as Harvard, Oxford or Cambridge. It's a cliche to say that content is king, but I believe the download patterns via iTunes U prove that cliche. People seem to download content that they want to consume rather than just because it comes from an institution with a world-beating reputation."
Having said that, Williams also points out that the rise of iTunes U means that now we can all "get into" Stanford University.
"Of course we haven't really; we just get to watch a lecture, and we don't get the qualification, the feedback or the full university experience. It's a bit like watching Glastonbury on TV. Unless you've got the mud, the sleep deprivation and the reduced brain function, it just isn't the same. Putting Glastonbury on the telly doesn't stop people buying tickets," Williams says.
FREE FOR ALL
To explore the potential of open educational resources, see:
- OpenCourseWare Consortium - www.ocwconsortium.org
- Jorum, the national open educational resources repository - www.jorum.ac.uk
- MIT's OpenCourseWare - http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb
- Apple's iTunes U - www.apple.com/education/mobile-learning
- CcLearn, a division of Creative Commons dedicated to supporting open learning and open educational resources - http://learn.creative commons.org/resources
- Open Educational Resources Commons, a network of shared teaching and learning materials - www.oercommons.org
Stuart Lee is an iTunes star - his lectures on medieval English have been among the top ten higher education downloads on the site for the past three years.
The University of Oxford lecturer started off making audio recordings of his lectures for his students, then began to put his podcasts on to iTunes, and recently has led Oxford's engagement in iTunes U.
When he began making recordings, one of the first things he looked out for was any change in attendance at his lectures, but he found that it did not drop. Feedback from students was very positive.
"Oxford has a very condensed timetable and there are a lot of demands placed on students. Having a recording means that if they missed a lecture through no fault of their own, for example if they were ill, they can catch up. Secondly, if they were at the lecture, it means the pressure for note-taking is off and they can come back to it and reflect on it later."
Lee was one of the first lecturers at Oxford to put material on iTunes.
"Like any academic, I am keen to promote my subject as widely as possible," he says.
"Because they were introductory lectures, they were suitable for a general audience - I hoped to get people interested in the university and in that particular period of English."
Soon he was receiving email feedback from people around the world.
"It really brought home the potential for getting information out about your course and your research to a worldwide audience."
The move also encouraged him to revise and update his lectures.
"Once you make a lecture public, you can't just give the same lecture the next year."
He believes it also helps to eliminate some of the prejudices that may exist about Oxbridge.
"It does break down the barriers between higher education and the public - it demystifies it - and I think it is our duty to try and tell people about our research."