Open-ended answers for questions of demand in cash-strapped Europe

Open courseware is a shop window and a pressure valve, Delft leader argues. Jack Grove reports

March 8, 2012

Universities should not be afraid to put their course material online because wider exposure will improve their global standing, the head of Europe's open courseware movement has argued.

Only a handful of UK higher education institutions - the University of Nottingham, The Open University and parts of the University of Oxford - have set up freely available educational collections since the Massachusetts Institute of Technology pioneered the idea in 2002.

But Anka Mulder, president of the OpenCourseWare Consortium Europe, said it was time for universities and nations to embrace the learning model and reap its rewards.

European universities have been reluctant to open up their resources to all comers. Of the consortium's 260 members, only 53 are European (of which 35 are Spanish universities).

"We have the infrastructure and everyone is online, but it has just not taken off in Europe yet," said Dr Mulder, secretary general of the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.

Delft is leading European activities for Open Education Week, which runs from 5 to 9 March and features online lectures and workshops to raise awareness of open courseware.

"It is amazing to see [open courseware's] development in Asia," she said. "In China it is becoming popular and the Korean government strongly supports this movement."

But does the free-access model make financial sense when universities are competing against each other for limited resources? And why would students pay hefty tuition fees if the same content is available for free online?

"Universities offer much more added value," Dr Mulder said. "They have teachers that help students understand the materials, many other services and the value of diplomas. It is naive to think this is where universities will compete.

"At Delft, we are not afraid that we will lose our position in the market because of this. In fact, we think it gives Delft an even better reputation because people will see the quality of our material online."

The movement took a great leap forward in December when MIT said it would provide (and charge for) certification for students who can prove they have completed open courses. Dr Mulder said such initiatives may become widespread.

"Someone who did not have the resources, for example, to come to Delft to do a master's in water management could learn from us, too," she said. "These valuable resources could be used by people in Africa and Asia, and we are happy to teach those people as well.

"Demand for higher education is increasing all over the world, but budgets are not. How are we to deal with that question?"

Dr Mulder added that if European Union members wanted to increase their higher education participation rates to 40 per cent with less money, initiatives such as open courseware were essential.

"I read that we will need to build three new universities a week to deal with all the coming global demand. There is huge pressure on higher education and I hope open education can help deal with it," she said.

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