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Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities Are Opening Up Access to Their Courses.

Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities Are Opening Up Access to Their Courses

by Taylor Walsh

Princeton University Press 2011

320 pages

ISBN 978-0-691-14874


At the turn of the century, most of us watched as top universities began to experiment with online courseware as a means to reach out to existing as well as new constituencies of learners. Now over a decade later and faced with unprecedented economic challenges, many a university and college is looking to online courseware as a means to increase efficiency and effectiveness. Moreover, all sectors of higher education are being transformed by changes in the way knowledge is created and disseminated. Witness the massive increase in iTunesU videos throughout higher education, or Google "higher education online courseware" and skim the over 500,000 search results. Clearly, the gates have been unlocked.

Taylor Walsh, writing on behalf of Ithaka S+R, a not-for-profit strategy and research service that supports innovation in the academic community (, has chronicled the development of key initiatives in this online courseware space. Her compilation of two years of research, including an impressive list of over 80 in-depth interviews, has resulted in a scholarly monograph that provides senior academic leadership with actionable, strategic intelligence around activity in this evolving field.

Considering the confusion regarding the definition of online courseware, Walsh states that the term "online courseware" as used throughout the book refers to "initiatives in which traditional degree-granting institutions convert course materials, originally designed for their own undergraduates, into non-credit-bearing online versions for the general public" (p. 1).

Walsh provides seven case studies of leading online courseware initiatives: two now-defunct initiatives, Fathom and AllLearn; four free and open projects, Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) OpenCourseWare, Carnegie Mellon University's Open Learning Initiative, Open Yale Courses, and webcast.berkeley; and, for an international perspective that differs in a number of respects from the others, the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning by the Indian Institutes of Technology. As part of each case study, Walsh provides a description of the initiative's beginning; unique objectives; business model; courseware offerings; relationship with its host institution(s), funder(s), and/or partner(s); effort at self-evaluation; and plans for long-term sustainability.

The monograph opens with an outstanding foreword by William G. Bowen, president emeritus, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Princeton University. An introductory chapter then sets the context in which Walsh states that the book's "primary intention is to analyze elite universities' uses of the internet to publish core undergraduate course materials, in a variety of ways and for a variety of purposes" (p. 19). A concluding chapter highlights key findings, and an epilogue explores the potential effects of the expanding set of online courseware experiments currently underway and being designed at nearly every institution in the United States and abroad.

Beginning with the case studies of the brief histories of Fathom, a Columbia University-led for-profit endeavor, and AllLearn, an effort brought together through a consortium of Oxford, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale Universities, Walsh outlines the challenges faced by revenue-generating initiatives. I read with great interest as I, along with authors Linda Baer and Doreen Starke-Meyerring, had studied Fathom's innovative partnership back in 2001. At that time, we wrote: "No one institution has enough human, intellectual, and fiscal infrastructure to meet the complex needs and services that exist in an e-environment" (Duin, Baer, and Starke-Meyerring 2001, p. 37). Indeed, Walsh notes that one of the earliest decisions that the Fathom leadership made was to create a partnership of 10 leading cultural institutions. The right to become a partner was based on prestige rather than on a consideration of the amount of digital content that the partner might contribute to the site. With roots in both for-profit and not-for-profit camps, Fathom's mission was not clear, and without a broad base of internal support or sufficient revenue, it ended.

Walsh writes that while AllLearn was designed as a collaborative approach to experimentation with e-learning, its central organization did not foster strong partnerships with member institutions. In addition, AllLearn made the false assumption that the members' collective alumni pool would provide sufficient interest and resulting revenue to at least break even. Again, this was not the case. At the time, many institutions assumed that to maintain their leadership position in higher education, they needed to be a leader in this online courseware space. As Walsh notes, additional initiatives--NYUOnline, Virtual Temple, and most other for-profit courseware spinoffs--all failed.

In an initial blueprint for partnering in this learning marketspace, Baer, Meyerring, and I (2001) noted the importance of addressing vision: What is the greater vision or greater social good? In chapter 3, Walsh emphasizes that MIT's OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiative did just that; as a result, this initiative set the standard for open-access online course materials, and it remains the best known and best funded to this day.

As with each case study, Walsh provides a thorough context that gives the reader a clear sense of the people involved from the beginning, how key decisions were made, and how organizational leadership and governance influenced success or failure. While MIT began with the assumption that this would be a revenue-generating model similar to others in the market at the time, its choice to survey alumni and investigate the competitive landscape led to its decision to give online non-credit-bearing courseware away for free. This position was seen as "a bold step in a new direction" (p. 60) and brought with it numerous external and internal supporters. Walsh notes that OCW is careful to state that this does not constitute entrance into the distance education space. Rather, OCW was designed to provide access to content, pure and simple, powerful and aligned to MIT's mission; for example, a continuing emphasis has been on the developing world as a key audience.

Readers will appreciate the detail in the description of OCW and the remaining case studies: Walsh emphasizes the importance of strong support by senior academic leadership, foundational support, data governance, a suitable executive director, faculty buy-in, suitable support for the production process, and self-evaluation efforts for continuous improvement. Walsh notes that over 200 similar projects have begun at universities throughout the world; the goal of raising the quality of learning worldwide--and ultimately the quality of life--is indeed a greater social good.

In chapter 4, Walsh chronicles Carnegie Mellon University's distinctive approach to its Open Learning Initiative (OLI). The OLI's interdisciplinary approach provides faculty with a team of experts to completely redesign their courses in order to provide learners with rich online environments. Walsh again provides detail on the financial underpinning for success; in this case, the Hewlett Foundation's investment became the first of many that it would make in the open-education space. In addition to free access to content, the foundation support made for additional access to instruction. Success also depended on the alignment and support of the chief information officer, members of the faculty, and the provost.

In the case of the OLI, Walsh highlights its emphasis on active learning: animations, interactive diagrams, virtual laboratories, simulations, "mini tutors" and embedded assessments provide an online courseware environment that may well be second to none. OLI online development correlated with the courses needed for Carnegie Mellon's strength in engineering; the strength of this initiative has resulted in powerful advances in teaching and learning at the university. Walsh points out the recent meta-analysis on online education's effectiveness, noting that students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction. While this chapter is an exemplary case study of the OLI project, some readers may be confused as the term "online courseware" used in this and remaining chapters clearly refers to online credit-bearing courses.

In chapter 5, Walsh shares the case study of Open Yale Courses (OYC). In this case, professional-quality lecture videos are recorded live in the classroom with the aid of a videographer. OYC emphasizes quality over quantity, focusing on 25 introductory-level courses and working toward the goal of having everyone see and hear each lecture as if they were there.

Yale University developed a streamlined process that paid close attention to faculty needs. Readers will appreciate the detail that Walsh provides regarding the support given by the Hewlett Foundation to a number of projects as well as to Creative Commons, a not-for-profit organization that provides free licenses to make intellectual property more accessible. Above all, success for Yale depended on close alignment with its institutional goal to increase its global research.

In my online distance teaching this term, I, as well as my colleagues teaching face-to-face courses, regularly use a locally developed product, Media Mill, to place audio and video content online in order to share it with anyone in the world. We also use Camtasia Relay (, a software that records audio and/or video of a class session on an instructor's laptop and delivers the recording in digital format.

As Walsh documents in chapter 6, the grassroots initiative at University of California, Berkeley, webcast.berkeley, began in a somewhat similar fashion. Professor Lawrence A. Rowe began webcasting his courses in the 1990s, and today nearly 550 courses include such audio and video recordings. Without foundation funding, this initiative focuses on efficiency, using minimal equipment coupled with automatic capture techniques. In a world where YouTube videos are accessed for learning how to use most anything, learners are accustomed to "just in time" quality video. Faculty readers will find this chapter particularly refreshing as this initiative began as the result of a professor's research agenda. Moreover, Professor Rowe did not seek administrative permission to post the courses online for a world audience. This initiative's current goal remains to serve Berkeley's students, and, in contrast to the other case studies, it is clear that students are driving the course-casting initiative and that motivation for continued support comes from Berkeley's working to keep pace with student expectations.

As we know, faculty throughout our institutions will continue to venture into online space on their own. With the vast increase in cloud resources, faculty are largely free to explore and use a myriad of online resources in support of their online courseware efforts. Open-source video platforms such as Kaltura ( handle all aspects of video production and dissemination as part of online courseware initiatives.

The final case study, India's National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL), is unique: it is the product of a partnership between government and higher education as part of a mandate to serve the nation. Walsh provides readers with an excellent understanding of the factors that contribute to the need for NPTEL and online courseware; these factors include inadequately prepared faculty, increased numbers of subpar private institutions, poor regulation, and decreasing competence of engineers. Walsh emphasizes that the most striking feature of NPTEL is its federation of universities with shared missions, institutions that have traditionally competed but that have come together to collaborate and share a source of funding. In contrast to Fathom and AllLearn, initiatives created with strong central governing structures, Walsh notes that NPTEL's organizational leadership is drawn entirely from faculty across the institutions, resulting in more consensus-driven governance. I urge you to focus on this chapter as it conveys the global nature of the online courseware enterprise.

As Walsh writes, these case studies "demonstrate that online courseware is not a monolithic concept; there are as many ways to design and operate an online courseware project as there are universities doing so" (p. xx). Of greatest importance is her discussion of major conclusions in chapter 8: the importance of alignment with institutional mission; the need to understand supply and demand; the use of metrics to determine success, failure, and impact; and the significant reputational benefit to those universities that have engaged with this effort. Walsh also emphasizes that long-term financial sustainability remains an unresolved issue and that offering online courseware in a content-only version creates the opportunity for institutions to explore possibilities without threatening their core value proposition.

In an interview earlier this year, Walsh stated that "it was also fascinating to uncover the extent to which these efforts are truly shaped by the distinct character of the parent universities that house them. In a variety of ways, online courseware projects respond to and fuel specific institutional goals; one premise of Unlocking the Gates is that these initiatives can only be fully understood in the specific contexts in which they developed" (Hampson 2011, [paragraph] 20).

Not too long ago, I attended a national conference for land-grant universities. At a session attended primarily by university presidents, the main topic focused on how these universities might generate additional revenue in this time of economic famine. President after president repeated that his or her action plan included increased deployment of online courseware. I would hope that before doing so, each president, provost, and his or her executive team leadership would read this outstanding book.


Duin, A. H., L. L. Baer, and D. Starke-Meyerring. 2001. Partnering in the Learning Marketspace. EDUCAUSE Leadership Strategies Series, vol. 4. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hampson, K. 2011. Unlocking the Gates: An Interview with Author, Taylor Walsh. Retrieved May 14, 2011, from the World Wide Web: http://highereducationmanagement -the-gates-interview-with-author-taylor -walsh/.

Ann Hill Duin is currently interim vice president and chief information officer at the University of Minnesota, where she is also a professor in the Department of Writing Studies. She has spearheaded state- and systemwide partnerships and facilitates interinstitutional teams in the design of sustainable partnerships. Her publications focus on collaboration and excellence through innovative uses of technology.
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Author:Duin, Ann Hill
Publication:Planning for Higher Education
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2011
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