Free online course materials will revolutionise third-level education


TALKBACK: Students are tapping into the vast amount of study resouces available online

BY NOW more than 70,000 adults and school leavers have applied to the CAO for a college place for the 2011-2012 academic year. They do so in the anticipation that by committing four to five years to undergraduate and postgraduate studies, they will increase their chances of developing a successful career into the future. At the end of their academic studies, the successful graduates will have acquired the knowledge and skills to enable them to secure a first step into the employment market in their chosen field of studies. They will also have incurred a debt of at least €30,000 in the process.

But what if you could access the entire programme of studies you are now applying for in the comfort of your own home and study it at your leisure without incurring a single cent of cost? A pipedream, you might say. In fact, this facility is already in place and available to anyone with an internet connection.

During the recent second World Innovation Summit for Education in Qatar last month, six groundbreaking education projects – from Pakistan, Turkey, Nigeria, South Africa, the UK and the US – were honoured. The one that really excited me was the “OpenCourseWare” project of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). OpenCourseWare (OCW) is a free and open digital publication of high quality university-level educational materials – often including syllabi, lecture notes, assignments and exams – organised as courses. While OCW initiatives typically do not provide a degree, credit, certification or access to instructors, OCW materials are made available under open licences for use and adaptation by educators and learners around the world.

OCW makes the materials used in the teaching of substantially all of MIT’s undergraduate and graduate courses – more than 2,000 in total – available on the web, free of charge, to any user in the world. OCW’s website receives an average of 1.5 million visits per month from more than 215 countries and territories worldwide. To date, more than 70 million visitors have accessed the free MIT educational materials on the site or in translation.

In the past 10 days, MIT has launched five courses that represent a significant new approach to openly sharing educational resources. Dubbed OCW Scholar courses, these materials are designed from the start for independent learners who have few additional resources available to them. The courses include new custom-created content as well as materials re-purposed from MIT classrooms. The materials are also arranged in logical sequences and include multimedia such as video and simulations. MIT will also publish a total of 20 such courses in the next three years, focused on introductory college-level science, mathematics, technology and other foundational subjects. See

How can we be discussing a 20-year strategy for higher education in Ireland through the recently published Hunt report and ignoring the transformatory effect of the application of the power of IT in the education process? Why should our students pay for education if they can have it for nothing? Can our traditional third-level sector sustain itself by claiming that it is the interactive process between student and staff, and between students themselves, that makes the €30,000 investment worthwhile, along with the bit of paper you receive at the end of the process, which your independent online learner does not have? OpenCourseWare will do for education in the next ten years, what Microsoft Windows did for computing in the last ten.

Brian Mooney is a teacher at Oatlands College, Stillorgan, Dublin