The United Nations University (UNU), a network of specialised research and knowledge sharing programs, has announced that it has joined the OpenCourseWare Consortium (OCW Consortium). The OCW Consortium is an initiative which I believe was launched by MIT after they started offering free access to MIT course descriptions, syllabi, reading lists, lecture notes, etc.. Opencourseware is based partly on the notion of open source software, i.e. making courseware freely available for anyone to use for their own learning, as a model for their own courses, etc.. The limitation that MIT has set is that opencourseware does not provide access to MIT teaching staff and can not be used to receive any recognition or qualifications from MIT.
I think it’s great that the UNU is doing this. It is certainly in the spirit of the UN and the ideal of an “information society open to all”. The UNU’s involvement in this initiative may certainly produce an important resource for individuals and organisations the world over. But, I think there is a slight flaw in the current thinking about opencourseware which limits somewhat its potential.
Open source software is based on complex communities that involve themselves in projects for many different reasons. Most importantly, although open source initiatives form around the production of specific artifacts, i.e. the software source code, they are process based, with the primary focus on two processes; knowledge development and making something better (Raymond’s “bazaar” analogy). Not everyone agrees to this description of open source communities (some focus more on the concept of “free/libre”), but I think that this description is the one that has the most significance for other communities interested in integrating elements of open source communities. What is important about open source communities in this regard is the way they work and the tools they use. What I feel is missing from the opencourseware initiative, when I look at the matter from this perspective is, the dynamic change in open source and the tools that make it possible to track changes, what prompted them, who made them, how they were made,. etc.. Imagine if one could track the evolution of a single course over years and across circumstances and read about why one text was replace with another over the years, etc.. I think this would be far more informative than the simple static descriptive resources being made available through opencourseware initiatives.
So, while I applaud the OCW Consortium and the UNU for its commitment to the initiative, I think a lot more could be done with the basic idea to make it even more useful. Things to consider:
Standardised means of describing courseware (open metadata model)
Concurrent versioning systems (CVS) for courseware
Promote change and encourage sharing (gpl-type license)