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The Federally Funded OpenCourseWare Revolution

Jun 15, 2011

What began essentially by accident - a 'consolation prize,' some pundits called it - has now turned into a revolution in the OpenCourseWare (OCW) movement. President Obama's defeated plans for community college reform have led to a surprising collaboration between the United States' Departments of Education and Labor that aims to help unemployed job seekers. What that may lead to is a total overhaul of how college course materials are disseminated.

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By Eric Garneau

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How It Happened

In 2009 President Obama announced his intentions to give $12 billion in federal aid to community colleges, thereby supporting an infrastructure cracking under the weight of increased enrollment and shrinking state funding. The following year, the President's plans were rejected by opposing lawmakers. However, from the ashes of that deal the government secured two billion dollars in funds for workers who'd lost their job due to shifts in global economy. As it turns out, that two billion may end up funding the largest database of OERs (Open Educational Resources) yet.

The government plans to accomplish this by requiring colleges who compete for their share of that money (by reeducating and retraining workers) to make their course materials available online under a Creative Commons license. That allows the material to be 'remixed and reused' as users see fit, and at no cost. Given that community colleges are currently hurting for funding, it's a safe bet that many of them will want to participate in such a program. That could create an archive of OCW that dwarves those currently offered by pioneers like MIT and Carnegie Mellon.

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What It Means

Besides the sheer amount of content, this federal initiative stands to offer a few more interesting alterations to the typical OCW set-up. For instance, there's no guarantee of quality with most OCW; it can vary from school to school. Because this new content is produced for the federal government, one might assume it to be a solidly reliable source of education.

Another issue OER opponents cite is that traditionally OCW lacks any form of credentialing. However, its implementation may not be too far off. Means of evaluating student performances are currently beginning to be built into OCW. How long until the results of those evaluations, which will test federally approved curricula, become enough of a credential for employers?

It seems ironic that a program originally designed to assist traditional community colleges may in fact transform the face of the education industry. Yet one can imagine that many would welcome the chance to earn a free, accredited college education online - especially those who find themselves out of work and are seeking career training. In that sense, President Obama's initial intention has survived. However, its implications may extend farther than he ever anticipated.

Read more about the financial difficulties befalling community colleges.

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