Sunday, January 14, 2007

Free and online courseware

A few days ago, Slashdot featured (for the n-th time, it turns out!) MIT's Open Courseware (OCW) project; look at the rather impressive list of available courses! The Slashdot discussion that followed is a veritable goldmine (sure, there's also the usual junk, but if you use Slashdot's ranking system, you can easily cut through the clutter). Several commenters gave links to other free online resources; here are the more interesting ones:

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While I admire MIT's commitment -- at the institutional level -- to OCW, I am with the slashdot commenters on the quality of the OCW content: it's patchy. In most courses, instructors have just put up their syllabus, home assignments and practice exams. Lecture notes tend to be no better than barely spruced up (and less pretty) lecture slides. Some commenters have said good things about a few courses that have better -- and better organized -- content, including videos. On the other hand, the Berkeley site offers only videos (correct me if I am wrong here); there are no course notes/home assignments/practice exams.

Other commenters have pointed to the need for textbooks; almost all courses use texts that don't come cheap. I think it is unreasonable to demand that the MIT professors use free and open textbooks (though it would be nice if they used them); but I also think it is reasonable to request -- not demand! -- that OCW provide links to online articles and texts. One can easily see the synergy between OCW and an initiative like WikiBooks

Finally, one perceptive Slashdot commenter makes an excellent point:

Fortunately OCW is not simply free, but (at least partly) licensed under a Creative Commons license allowing non commercial sharing and remixing (Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5). While you may not be able to replicate the experience of studying at MIT, someone may take the content and add e.g. a technical communications layer.

You are into advanced web 3.0 elearning platform development, but have no way to create the content? Take OCW, reuse what they have and give the world a new learning experience? You always wanted to write a shoot-'em up game based on and explaining the principles on quantum physics? You solve the DirectX/OpenGL/game engine magic and compensate your lack of talent as a physics tutor by using parts of 8.04 Quantum Physics I, Spring 2006.

These are primitive ideas, but I think about OCW more as a basis on which people can experiment than a library. Libraries have been around for a long time, unfortunately the majority of people don't use them. To reach the masses, you have to somehow turn the content of OCW into something compatible to a game console. Give it a shot!

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Also check out Connexions from Rice University [I wrote about it here], which is more inclusive than OCW: it hosts course content from non-Rice contributors too! Like OCW, Connexions too uses Creative Commons license.

Arun pointed sometime ago to an initiative by IITs and IISc to make available course material online; It's free, but requires you to register. This is unnecessary. Also unnecessary -- undesirable, even -- is the copyright protection. It goes against the spirit of the enterprise. More importantly, this copyright message actually sounds atrociously ludicrous when it appears on a website dishing out free content on the web, :

All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including downloading, recording, photocopying or by using any information storage and retrieval system without prior permission in writing from the copyright owner.


  1. pradeepkumar said...

    Abi: Thanks for those fine links. I been using MIT coursewares since their introduction. Yes I have got similar complains- especilly the absence of videofiles and power ponits. But still they are great. Lately I am into Berkley resources. The video quality of many lessons are not upto the mark. About IISc-IITs intiatiative it would be great if you could wrire Prof. Mangala Sunder, who is the coordinator of the project. He is a
    very nice person and will be glad to receive comments from you.