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Dreaming and Doing: A Conversation with Mary Lou Forward of the OpenCourseWare Consortium

Mary Lou Forward, Executive Director of the OpenCourseWare Consortium (OCWC) calls OCW 'the perfect field for somebody who likes to dream,' but knows that the sharing educational resources with people around the world also requires the drive to get things done, and the OCWC is doing just that. The Education Insider met with her at the OpenCourseWare Consortium Conference to learn where OCW has been and, more importantly, where it's going.

edited by Stacy Redd

Mary Lou Forward OCWC 2010

Prior to joining the OCWC, Mary Lou Forward worked as the Dean of African Studies for SIT Study Abroad and Academic Director for undergraduate programs in Madagascar. Her unique and varied background allows her to understand the needs of learners around the world and help the OCWC create the kind of Open Education Resources (OERs) that can truly make a global impact.

Q. Can you tell us a little bit about what you do with the OCWC?

A. I'm the executive director of the Consortium. At this point, we have almost 275 member institutions around the world, a majority of which are outside the U.S. We're one of the coordinators in the open education movement globally. Within the last two weeks we also signed an agreement to have the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources join us. We're forming a single organization going forward and we'll be better positioned to represent the full spectrum of higher education.

Q. What role has the Consortium played in the development of OCW?

A. The early participants in OCW programs realized there were many commonalities with starting the programs: talking to faculties, picking a platform (for content delivery), clearing copyrights for intellectual property, that kind of thing. They decided they needed some place where they could deposit the best practices and start getting guidelines and tools, so they started a Consortium. That was in 2005. Three years later it became an incorporated entity, and a year after that I joined.

Q. What's your background?

A. My background's not actually in OCW. I was in African and environmental studies. I lived in Madagascar for six years teaching ecology and environmental studies to university students. Then I came back to the U.S. and took a job as Dean of African Studies. I was working on community-based educational programming across the continent. What was intriguing to me was there was so much knowledge being generated in one place that wasn't being shared anywhere else. As an individual I was trying to get different universities to convene online and share information, so students in the U.S. could understand the context of students in Africa and they could ask each other questions. A lot of understanding could be generated, particularly around issues like water management and development and that kind of thing.

When I heard about the OCWC it was almost like 'why didn't I think of that?' Education is supposed to be about sharing: sharing knowledge, sharing resources. It seemed like the perfect vehicle to help education forward and broaden access.

Q. What do you feel is the biggest barrier right now to learners who want to access education?

A. I think there are a number of issues, depending on where you are in the world. Of course, in the U.S., there's the cost. If you want higher education, you have to pay for it. There's the cost of textbooks and everything else. If you're an adult learner in the U.S., there are not a lot of programs designed to serve you where you are in your life, to be flexible about the time that you can dedicate, when you want to go to class and where you want to study. If you want a particular program that might not be offered at a local school you're going to have to pick up your life and move halfway around the world.

The education system that's developed works really well for the population it serves and really badly for almost everybody else. We're trying to find a way to get knowledge to students that reduces those barriers. I think also for a large section of the population higher education is scary. They may not have a family tradition of going to school. They may not have support from their family and friends. It's not something that their peer group does. So this gives them a window into it and a chance for success before they actually have to commit. And when you give somebody a taste of success and they realize they can actually do it, they're much more likely to commit to a full education program or keep on learning. It's all about human development. That's what education's for.

Q. What would you say you enjoy most about working at the Consortium?

A. I love the diversity of approaches and the potential. This is a perfect field for somebody who likes to dream. But you have to have a combination of dreaming and doing to get things done. It's really gratifying to work with this range of people. People are approaching this really differently, but there's so much energy and dedication to the idea of sharing. That's incredibly rewarding.

My colleague mentioned earlier how nice it is to talk to people who are this open. It's been my experience for the last two years that people really are committed to sharing, and that doesn't mean just in their jobs. They're 100% committed to making this work and I've never worked with a field that collaborates as much as this one does. It's fabulous.

Q. What are the initiatives you're really excited about seeing developed further?

A. A lot. One of the ones that's a keen interest of mine wouldn't surprise you because it happens to be taking place in Africa. It's an initiative led by the African Virtual University centered on creating teacher-training materials specifically to fill the need for teachers in Africa. They identified their need, pulled together a collaborative group across 12 countries and three different language groups and created materials that met their need. Then they opened it up to the world. That kind of intentional development of materials is fantastic.

Q. What would be some advice you'd give to beginning users of OCW and how to make the most out of their experiences as an open learner?

A. I think the first thing is to try and know what it is you want to learn. Then you can gain a certain amount of information in general web searches. If you want to understand how you really move from one point of understanding to another, that's really where OCW comes in. It's designed to enhance your understanding. Once you figure out you want to know a little more about a subject, you look at OCW and you can find, most of the time, three or four different universities with different approaches on how you build on that basic knowledge. That's a nice feature, because one of those is bound to speak to the way you learn. If you learn better by videos, there are probably videos. If you learn better by text, I'm sure there's text. You can customize OCW to the way that you learn and what it is you want to learn.

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