‘Open Universities’ Try to Bring College to Masses

    by Jennifer Woodard Maderazo
    July 20, 2007

    A college education in the United States can be one of the most costly in the world. For many young people, college isn’t an option because of the economic strain it represents for their families. And many older people who would like to attend classes must forego studies to make ends meet.

    But thanks to the power of voluntary collaboration, technology tools and the reach of the Internet, college-level classes and learning resources are becoming more and more accessible to anyone who has the interest and an Internet connection. But can you really get an education for free online? Yes and no. I set out to try to see what I could learn from two high-profile initiatives, Wikiversity and iTunes U.

    When we hear the words “online university,” many of us tend to cringe, thinking of the ads that appear incessantly online for diploma mills promising anyone a Bachelor’s degree in no time with little to no effort. But the term is also becoming used to describe the phenomenon of the open university, which allows anyone with an Internet connection to access courses, media and resources on the topic of their choice, sometimes without a fee.

    Open University seal

    One of the most successful examples of this model is the UK’s Open University (OU). Recognized within the EU as an accredited university with full time faculty and staff, some of OU’s courses are free. With 180,000 studying full or part time around the world, the Open University and others of its kind have given broader access to education. What’s remarkable about this concept is that the student is granted a degree at the end of his or her course of study, something that newer, less traditional online learning initiatives can’t deliver. [Check COMMENTS below for a clarification on OU’s pay vs. free courses.]

    Wikiversity: Collaborative Teaching and Learning

    Last year, the Wikipedia Foundation announced the beta launch of its Wikiversity, a “multidimensional social organization dedicated to learning, teaching, research and service.” Wikiversity isn’t an online university per se, but rather a repository of information on subjects one might study at a university. The site is organized into “faculties” and “departments,” letting you access materials for learning about a wide range of topics — from South African Contract Law to Hitler’s Germany. Since Wikiversity, like Wikipedia, depends solely on voluntary submissions, it’s often impossible to complete a whole course on something. Information comes in bits and pieces, and in the cases of some faculties, there are huge holes where information should be.

    Since I’ve always been so bad at Algebra, and the Wikiversity College Algebra course seemed fairly complete, I chose this subject as a starting point. To get started, I only had to select a “learning project” (in my case, College Algebra) and click on it, and this took me to the main page of the course. I then read through the overview, and got acquainted with what will be covered in the class, as well as the materials I would need. The “books” I needed were located on the Wikibooks site and the University of Kentucky website.


    Excited at the prospect of getting started on my 10-15 week Algebra course, I quickly realized that while the course is laid out just fine, many of the elements I’ll need for study are missing. I have my books, I have my instructors, teaching assistants and tutors, but only one of the lessons in the course syllabus is actually available online. It looks as if the course was created last year with great zeal, then abandoned before it was ever completed. So instead of learning College Algebra from beginning to end, I’m left only with a short lesson on FOIL and algebraic manipulation, my books and my tests, the latter of which will be hard to complete since I haven’t learned much. Oh well.

    While the idea of Wikiversity is great, it’s not quite there yet. In attempting to supplement what was lacking for my Algebra course, I actually found more on Wikipedia than at the Wikiversity. While other areas of the site might be richer in content, I wasn’t able to access what I wanted to learn. It’s kind of like registering for classes and realizing the one you want is full. I got stuck in Geometry, but I really wanted Algebra.

    iTunes U: Top-Tier Learning at a Distance

    In 2006, Apple quietly launched iTunes U, an initiative to help universities get their content — mainly the audio from lectures — online and available to students through their popular iTunes application. While the original idea was for current students to be able to “attend” classes from home through podcasts, anyone can take a class at say, Stanford or Harvard — at least the classes that are available online.

    i-6a87867044aabb1bb1436735be5ecd48-iTunes U.jpg

    It’s no secret that an Ivy League education is out of reach for many, but with iTunes U, ivory towers fall and anyone anywhere can listen in on classes at these institutions. I, however, opted for a humbler state school experience: UC Berkeley, which offers a course in new media, “The Foundations of American Cyberculture”, taught by Professor Greg Niemeyer. Instead of combing through text as on Wikiversity to get a sense for what the class would be like, I simply hit “play” to hear the professor kick off the first class and get acquainted with us, the students.

    Professor Niemeyer is an engaging speaker, which is great since his class is offered only in audio on iTunes U; with a lesser orator, I would probably have fallen asleep. The first class is the humdrum introduction and overview, but subsequent classes are fascinating. We explore how cyberculture and new media have created a post-biological period in history in which we are more concerned with cultural evolution than genetic evolution. I learn that many experts link technology and men’s quest for creation in it to womb envy because of their inability to create physical beings. Suddenly I remember what it was like to be in college and enthralled with ideas that if spoken outside classroom walls warrant strange looks.

    But none of that really has to do with iTunes U. The content provided by the professor is engaging, but the platform upon which it lives is just that — a platform. If I had taken another class, my experience might not have been so enlightening. And even in Niemeyer’s class, I began losing interest when later classes include the professor showing videos that I can’t see. The class at Berkeley is watching cyborgs and crazed computers, and I’m left in the dark. So I drop out of class.

    Innovation or Hype?

    Before iTunes U was even a thought, universities were offering their content to the world online. The homepages of professors with study notes and homework assignments for their students came way before the iPod. And it’s this very fact that has drawn criticism from some in the academic community, who wonder if Apple is really just forcing iTunes adoption on faculty and students. Last year, Jon Udell of Infoworld quoted a university instructor who attended an Apple on-campus presentation as saying “it was made explicitly clear (in that I asked about it and he told me point blank) that iTunes U is seen specifically as a driver to iTunes adoption. That’s their bottom line on the issue.”

    And while the Wikiversity idea is, in theory, revolutionary, it seems extremely hard to pull off without an engaged university faculty community online. While Wikipedia’s users are prolific in their contributions, it might take a bit more to rile the great minds into action on Wikiversity. The established MIT OpenCourseWare online archive of classes offers deep content and real courses on nearly anything under the sun, so perhaps sharing content with projects such as this could help broaden the offerings for Wikiversity.

    Beyond the Open University model, are we any closer to providing free access to a college education with these initiatives? It depends on whether you define “college education” as self-edifying studies or an actual degree. While initiatives like iTunes U serve to turn on technophiles to information and resources that they wouldn’t normally access and provide on-campus students classes they might have missed, it won’t put me any closer to a degree in new media, or even a certification for that matter. And while listening to lectures on iTunes sounds more sexy than taking classes on UC Berkeley Extension’s Distance Learning site, only one will give me academic credit and it’s the one I have to pay for.

    In the end, I think the tools are great, and education is what you make of it. An unlikely comment on the subject of online learning comes from Cuban President Fidel Castro, who in his regular column this week talked about the topic of brain drain — young, bright professionals leaving poorer countries for greener pastures in the U.S. and Europe. His message was: “Whoever has a computer has all published knowledge at their disposal and the privileged memory of the machine belongs to them too.” Too bad very few people in Cuba actually have access to the Internet.

    What do you think? Are Wikiversity and iTunes U a step in the right direction toward opening up education to more people? Are there any other online learning projects you use or would recommend? What can be done to make learning more accessible? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    Jennifer Woodard Maderazo is the associate editor of PBS MediaShift. She is a San Francisco-based writer, blogger and marketer, who covers Latino marketing at Latin-Know and Latino cultural issues at VivirLatino.

    Tagged: education online colleges wikipedia
    • leonard glaser

      Thank you. that was a very informative column. the open university sounds terrific. i’ll have to look into it. wickipedia has many problems because it allows anyone to put whatever in there. so wickiversity seems just as flawed.

    • Rainbow

      Suggest you check your facts – no way are the Open University’s courses free! You need 360 points for an honours degree, and a 9-month 60-point course costs around 600 (more for overseas students). Postgraduate studies are around twice that for a year. Great place to study, but not by any means free.

    • I am one of the people you describe: forgoing education to make ends meet. I have been interested in business classes and was pleased to find that the Sloan School of Management offers a variety of classes for free via MIT’s Open Courseware. They make a clear distinction: you can download the class materials and lecture notes though not all of these materials are perfect and you have no interaction with professors. I think they do an excellent job providing their materials in an open setting while maintaining a few reasons to shell out $40K+ to attend class.

    • Rainbow, you’re right. “Most” courses aren’t free; I should have said “many” are free. Though it is true that earning a degree from OU, as you note, is pretty much impossible without spending the money.

      From what I’ve seen, the one truly free thing that they offer is their OpenLearn project:


      The distinction should be made between OU and the OpenLearn project. My understanding is that the latter doesn’t grant degrees. If you have experiences with it I’ve love to hear about them. Thanks for the comment.

    • UK Observer

      OpenLearn at the OU is very similar in concept to MIT’s OpenCourseware. The “normal” Open University is just like any other state University in the UK, subject to the same quality assurance (by the UK Dept of Education) of its courses and degrees. Its cost base is lower because undergrads study from home so it costs a little less, that’s all. Almost all Universities in the EU are state Universities, with courses heavily subsidized. Student fees (if any) just top this up.

    • Your comment: “And even in Niemeyers class, I began losing interest when later classes include the professor showing videos that I cant see” rings true for many courses in iTunes U, and that are offered as distance learning. Unfortunately, straight captures of lectures can be boring and frustrating and often contain irrelevancies. (I downloaded a Yale lecture by Bloom on poetry where the first 15 minutes or more was about people taking seats instead of standing etc.)

      At NJIT (we are currently in the iTunes U index too) has chosen to not capture live classes for podcasting. We are pushing hard to get faculty to record selective portions of a “lecture” (perhaps done at their desktop or in a studio setting). We want to not only avoid the type of thing you mentioned, but also not have the podcasts replace the classroom experiences (discussion, activities, interactions) that really are at the heart of a good course.

      I don’t see Apple’s main motivation as selling more iPods, but truly as an educational experiment. No one is required to use an iPod to create or watch/listen to a podcast there. In fact, most research I have seen indicates that most people use podcasts on their computer at this point.

      Wikiversity may not be quite “there” yet. iTunes U is closer. Much is yet to come.

    • Folks,

      I just thought that I’d provide some links to some free online educational resources — ones that seem relevant to the conversation here.

      1) Below you can find a collection of free university courses (about 75 in total) available via podcast. They come from top notch universities. Sorry that the link is long.


      2) And here you can access the podcast collections for many major universities. Lots of good (and free) lectures/talks to be found here.


    • Eugene

      “most of OUs courses are free.” Where did you get that idea from?

      I guess I should take another look at my 4000 USD bill for this year :)

    • Dear Jennifer, an interesting round-up, but ten days on isn’t it time to correct (in the main article) the error about OU course fees?

      The OpenLearn page here (http://www.open.ac.uk/openlearn/get-started/get-started-learner.php) points out some of the differences between OpenLearn and the OU’s main courses. For example, OpenLearn does NOT award degrees or award credits; nor does it offer tutorial support, which is a key element in OU courses.

      The OU has a page on its fees here:
      I doubt even “many” of its courses are free…

    • I tried to clarify this in my earlier response, but here goes again: most of the courses at the OU are not free. Most, as you point out, cost money. And while OU offers free courses through Open Learn, the degree granting body of it, to my understanding, does not. I have clearly confused Open Learn with the main degree-granting body of the OU and I regret the error. Feel free to correct me if I still have it wrong.

    • I think you’re right (although it’s worth checking with the OU).

      Is it possible to correct the point in the original article/post (rather than in the comments), which still reads “most of OUs courses are free”?

    • Jonathan,
      I’ve edited the post to reflect those corrections and pointed to the comments as well.

    • Too bad most of the comments on this post revolved around the free/fee confusion.

      I’m beginning to sense an emerging class of young Internet entrepreneurs who opt for skipping college since – as teens – they’ve already developed the skills to succeed in the tech world. Many of these people eventually will want some type of learning experience for exploring topics of interest, but I suspect that they will opt for some type of non-degree program, possibly even online courses offered by a non-university organization. In reality, most people go to college so that they can get a good job. What happens in the world when a college degree is irrelevant to success in landing a white-collar job?

    • I think that distance education should have a careful selection process as well. Sometimes online examinations are not thought out so there are a lot of students who just cheat! It is good that we can open education to ore people but we should be careful about it, otherwise education might lose its value.

    • kakra

      i need an university to school in also i want to apply i am an international student. help me

    • Sometimes online examinations are not thought out so there are a lot of students who just cheat! It is good that we can open education to ore people but we should be careful about it.


      I am ololo chukwuemeka bright and a final year student at the lagos state university ,undertaking the course;chemecal and polymer engineering .
      I will like to comlete my studies under your online tutorlegde and will be glad if an opportunity is given to me
      your intending student,
      ololo chukwuemeka.

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