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Open university courseware trend comes to SA

By   |  February 21, 2006

The University of the Western Cape (UWC) has made a policy decision to make its course material freely available over the Internet. This is believed to be a first for an African university. Material that will be made available includes courses, syllabuses, lecture notes and exam papers.

UWC’s “free content and free open courseware strategy” was approved by the university’s senate in October 2005. It marks what Derek Keats, the executive director of information and communication services at UWC, describes as “the beginning of a journey”.

“Tertiary institutions the world over are recognising the value of freely sharing educational curricula and content, collaborating in their further development and extension, and doing so under the umbrella of free and unrestricted access to knowledge,” the strategy document states.

UWC is following a precedent set by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States. Its website was launched in September 2002 and, by December 2005, 1 250 courses — including lecture notes, assignments and even video lectures — had been made available to anyone with access to the Internet, according to the MIT website. More than 400 000 users every month, including many from developing countries, are reported to access MIT’s site.

Other universities in Japan, France and the US have followed suit. But, says Keats, to the best of his knowledge, UWC is the first in Africa to adopt a free and open courseware policy.

UWC’s open courseware initiative is far less ambitious than MIT’s: its principal target audience is the university’s own students and staff. Although, if the resource were to be found useful by outsiders, that would be an added bonus, says Keats.

At the core of the initiative is the creation of a community in which there is collaboration. “We don’t see our institution as heaven and its courses and resources as manna for the poor and impoverished of the world. Our approach is more one of we can’t go it alone any more. We need to begin to show leadership for collaboration. It’s a case of this is what we’re doing, if you find it useful, use it, comment on it and add to it,” says Keats.

Unlike MIT, which received $11million in grants to get its OCW initiative going, UWC’s free and open content project has no outside funding, says Keats. “It’s a UWC initiative. We see it as part of our normal university function.” So the cost of this initiative will have to be covered in the university’s budget.

Particular costs outlined in the strategy document include R90 000 for hardware, with replacement every three years, a projected R100 000 a year for bandwidth and R30 000 travel expenses for one staff member to attend one international forum on free content and open courseware a year. The project may need outside funding, however, for what Keats calls “special things”, for example, programme co-ordination, support, content production and awards for the best quality content.

In order to create the free and open courseware resource, academics at the university must make their course material available for publishing. The senate has agreed to the free open content policy and no one objected to the concept, says Keats, so the lecturers “notionally buy into the concept”. However, the open courseware project could add to their already heavy workloads. According to the strategy document, “facilities, training and incentives” will be provided to academics.

Copyright issues also have to be dealt with. Course readers, presentations in Powerpoint or other formats and other materials that do not contain copyrighted items produced by UWC academics will be made available on the open courseware site.

Unlike MIT, which uses a restrictive Creative Commons licence, UWC licenses its material under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) licence because it promotes greater freedom, says Keats. The Creative Commons licences, developed by Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, are an alternative licensing scheme that allows authors to decide which rights they wish to give away and under what terms.

It will probably be a few years before the university is able to have lots of courses available online, says Keats. Creating a resource of this nature is a long process and UWC is just at the beginning of the journey. “The project is young, so what it will become is still speculation”.

In the meantime, the team to implement the project has been set up and the open source software on which the project runs has been developed at UWC’s Free Software Innovation Unit. The plan is to have the open courseware project up and running by March on the university’s e-learning site.


One Response to “Open university courseware trend comes to SA”

  1. Marc Ihuwe
    June 3rd, 2006 @ 12:00 am

    This is wonderful news. I am one of the few lucky Africans that have been able to access materials on MIT\’s website.Though am in a remote part of Nigeria.Its nice that an african institution of learning is following the example set by MIT.Am elated with the recent development. I hope other African universities will follow this pattern so other Universities will be able to compare their curriculum and see if there teachings are OLD SCHOOL.

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