UCT opens the door to free education

This week the University of Cape Town (UCT) is celebrating Open Education Week — a global event aimed at creating awareness about the benefits of free and open sharing in education.

The event is organised by the OpenCourseWare Consortium, a US-based global organisation with 250-member institutions, including UCT. Lecturer, and UCT’s OpenContent website manager, Glenda Cox, spoke to the Mail & Guardian.

What is OpenContent?
OpenContent (OC) is the broad term for the free sharing of intellectual property online. Open access refers to the sharing of journals and scholarly articles. Open Education Resources (OER) is the sharing of teaching and learning material. This material includes PowerPoint slides, podcasts and videos of lectures at one end of the continuum to full course modules, examples of tests and assignments on the other end. The content is licensed through a copyright management solution called CreativeCommons that allows people to use and share the information while ensuring acknowledgement for its author.

What is UCT doing with this?
UCT is trying to share as much as possible. The institution currently shares just under 200 teaching and learning resources which include over 1 000 downloadable items on its OpenContent website.

Why is this important for the person on the street?
There is a desire out there for learning and the vision for OpenContent, both locally and internationally, is to provide the material for this learning. Many people cannot access education because of circumstances such as poverty, location and work but still want to learn. You can go online and learn about building a bridge if you need to build a bridge. You can learn about malaria, its statistics, the latest theories and the particular mosquito that gives you malaria. You can learn about anything at no cost and that’s the amazing thing about this.

What does this mean for the traditional student?
Prospective students who want to get an idea of what a course is like can go onto a website like UCT’s OpenContent and look at the lecture series on a particular topic. You might want to see how difficult information systems (IS) is for example, so you look at the courses for IS 101 and you might think ‘Woah I actually don’t want to study this’ and then you could decide to do computer science instead. We want students to be involved with OER. We want them to go up to a lecturer and say ‘that was a brilliant lecture, don’t you want to put that on OpenContent so others can enjoy it?’ It is also helping students to pass because they are now able to review teaching material and see what other lecturers are doing on the topic around the world. That would not have happened before the OpenContent site (launched in February 2010).

What does this mean for universities?
Sharing teaching and learning materials is not threatening at all to universities because you don’t actually get a degree and there is no assessment of your work. In fact it makes the work done by the institution’s academics more discoverable through tagging. So if you type ‘climate change open content’ into Google for example the OpenContent climate change courses appear in the top five items. The same applies to research in Open Access repositories and this results in a lot more citations of this work by other researchers and therefore greater research impact.

What are the challenges of traditional distribution through published journals?
Currently the model at universities is that research published in journals is acknowledged and used for career promotion and to raise funds for the institution. That model is unlikely to change in the near future. Journals can only be accessed through the university, or you can pay for a subscription to a particular journal. This is often very expensive and has to an extent created a monopoly on knowledge. These researchers are gripped in this system because that’s how they get recognition and promotion. However, there is a growing amount of open access journals that are not necessarily part of that exclusive rating group but are open to everyone. There are various models of sharing that people should think about.

Are other universities offering OpenContent?
Many South African universities have Open Access repositories where they store their research. At the moment UCT and the University of the Western Cape are the only institutions that share course materials and lectures. I am sure that this will be changing soon.

How do you see the future of OpenContent at UCT?
We imagine having Open UCT where anyone can come along and find material across all faculties and various disciplines. One day we want people to be able to come here and search for an academic and find everything he/she has done.

There are people who are naturally sharers and people who would rather keep their intellectual property to themselves. That’s their choice. But we would like to see a shift in that philosophy. We would also like to see a change in the way people create teaching and learning materials from scratch where academics are thinking ‘I’m going to share this so whatever I create needs to be born open, for example: I am only going to use Creative Commons images or my own images’. This would mean a move to ‘open’ practice.

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