Understanding OCW: A Field Guide to Free Education

Apr 28, 2011

OpenCourseWare, also known as OCW, is sweeping the education world and revolutionizing the way students and self-learners can learn. Unfortunately, many people don't even know what OCW is or how they can access free education opportunities. Read on for a full overview of OCW and the way you can use it to learn for free.

By Stacy Redd

How to Use OCW to Learn for Free

OCW stands for OpenCourseWare and is a project made famous by MIT. Even though the term 'OCW' is rocking the education world, an survey indicates that 41.2% of respondents don't yet know what OCW is.

Although course formats vary, professors participating in OCW typically post materials like the course syllabus and book list on the Web. You can use these materials to guide yourself through the course. Some OCW includes recorded lectures, which is a fun way to simulate the full student experience. These lectures are typically recorded from the back of the lecture hall, and you'll view them just like a regular student. While rarer, there are also OCW offerings that include interactive elements like online tutorials and self-grading quizzes. For example, Carnegie Mellon University's Open Learning Initiative offers free online courses in a variety of subject areas, including biochemistry, French and physics. These courses are designed for independent learners and include a combination of instruction and practice.

Why People Use OCW

A wide variety of people took's survey, included retired individuals, current students and working professionals. These people access free education for a variety of reasons, but the top reason was to update their skills or knowledge in order to achieve better success in the workplace. Other people used OCW to learn a specific skill or to create teaching materials to use with other students. The wide variety of open education materials means that all learners can find something that works for them. Some people might prefer to follow written lecture notes while others may prefer to watch a video; there's something for everyone.

The following table shows how respondents use OCW. Respondents chose all of the options that applied to them, so the percents do not add up to 100. The respondents include high school and college students, self-described self-learners, educators, working professionals, retired individuals, employers and journalists.

Graph showing how people use OCW.

Get Your Learning Started's survey showed that 45.7% of respondents had never used OCW; however, it can be easy and fun to use OCW to learn about a topic of interest. You can learn virtually any topic with free open learning materials. For example, MIT offers courses topics ranging from architectural design to brain science.

If you're taking an OCW course that just features a collection of course materials, begin by following the syllabus in order to learn the topics in the order presented by the professor. Visit your local library to find the books on the book list; if your library doesn't own the books, you may still be able to get them for free through interlibrary loan. Many professors also post supplemental materials such as homework assignments and tests. Although you will have to grade assignments and tests yourself, they can be a great way to monitor your understanding of the material.

There are dozens of universities offering free, open learning resources. If you're looking for OCW that focuses on course materials like syllabi and book lists, consider courses from MIT or Tufts (Tufts has many courses related to medicine and nutrition). If you're more interested in video courses, consider University of California - Irvine or Yale. For interactive resources, check out Carnegie Mellon's Open Learning Initiative. If you know of a great OCW resource we should feature on this blog, let us know!

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