British University Launches Program to Expand Access to Educational Materials Online

MENLO PARK, Calif. – The growing movement to make educational materials available to anyone with an Internet connection marked a milestone today when the United Kingdom’s venerable Open University launched a new online collection of curricula, as well as software to enhance its use.

The new Web-based program, called OpenLearn, will give students and teachers access to 5,000 hours of curricula on topics ranging from the arts to science and technology, and at levels ranging from those suitable for a beginning student through post-graduate study.

OpenLearn is part of a broader effort by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to bring educational materials to the Internet in innovative ways. To date the Foundation has underwritten OpenLearn with a $4.65 million grant.

OpenLearn differs from the rest of Open University, which requires students to pay tuition, in that its courses and other educational materials are being made available for free and do not lead to the granting of a degree.  Another hallmark of OpenLearn will be the ability it offers students and teachers to add, reorganize and republish content to suit their own needs in a part of the Web site called LabSpace.

Open University was founded in 1969 as an initiative of the British government. It is the only university in the UK dedicated to distance learning, or the teaching of students through course materials distributed via television, the Internet and postal mail. Today it is the UK’s largest university, with more than 160,000 students across the country and another 40,000 worldwide.

Open University Professor Andy Lane, now director of OpenLearn, said the new effort is an ideal fit with the university’s long-standing work.

“OpenLearn offers the opportunity to take [our work] to another level, reaching tens of millions of people each year around the world, not just hundreds of thousands,” Lane said.

Marshall Smith, director of the Education Program at the Hewlett Foundation, said the grant to create OpenLearn provides cutting-edge online distribution techniques to an institution with an extensive history of bringing high-quality educational materials to far-flung users.

OpenLearn launches with 900 hours of study materials and will increase to 5,000 by April 2008. Offerings will cover eleven subject areas, from arts and history to business and management, from modern languages to science and nature. Materials are presented in units that require three to fifteen hours of study time, including activities for self-assessment.

With OpenLearn, Open University joins a burgeoning international movement to provide educational materials on the Internet that the Hewlett Foundation helped pioneer more than four years ago. Since then, the Foundation has disbursed more than $60 million in grants to support programs worldwide that advance the promise of open educational resources—or OER, as it is known to educators.

“It’s yet another signal to educational institutions worldwide that the open educational resources movement is gaining momentum as a way to share the possibility of education with anyone who wants to learn,’’ Smith said of the launching of OpenLearn.

Behind the efforts of the Foundation and participating institutions are the beliefs that sharing the world’s knowledge and education are a common good and that geography and limited resources should not be barriers to someone’s desire to learn or teach.

As a practical matter, such sharing combines the technologies that make educational materials accessible with the legal innovations that address copyright and intellectual property laws so materials can be freely obtained—even reorganized and republished—by users around the world. Crucial to the Foundation’s vision of open educational resources is that users can add their own content, adapt others’ content and republish material to suit their own needs.

Individual Foundation-funded efforts vary widely but share the goals of assuring that the material is of high quality, free and reusable. The Foundation also is developing relationships with the World Bank, UNESCO and other international institutions to expand the use of open educational resources, and is funding the development of two Internet portals to gather these resources in common, searchable locations.

Among the projects that the Foundation has underwritten in whole or in part are MIT’s OpenCourseWare program, which has published virtually all MIT courses on the program’s Web site; Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative, a highly interactive approach designed to measure the effectiveness of the teaching;  African Virtual University’s development of an open educational resources strategy, which provides digital and printable material to train teachers in sub-Saharan Africa; and Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization that helps creators of intellectual property preserve a range of rights while sharing content.

To learn more about Open University and OpenLearn, contact Neil Coaten, head of media relations at Open University, at n.d.coaten@open.ac.uk or (44) 1908 652 580.

To learn more about the Hewlett Foundation’s work in Open Educational Resources, visit the OER page at the Foundation Web site.

For a fuller discussion of the potential and challenges of OER, read “The Promise of Open Educational Resources,’’ an article that Hewlett Foundation Education Program Director Marshall Smith and Program Officer Catherine Casserly wrote for Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning.

About The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has been making grants since 1966 to help solve social and environmental problems at home and around the world. The Foundation concentrates its resources on activities in education, the environment, global development, performing arts, philanthropy and population, and makes grants to support disadvantaged communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. A full list of all the Hewlett Foundation’s grants can be found at its Web site.

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