Opening the Ivory Tower

An online movement is giving unprecedented access to higher education

With its lofty price tag and even loftier reputation, Harvard is certainly a fountain of all things exclusive. But this tendency can be at odds with the current movement for a more open higher education.

Other universities have already been challenging this notion of exclusivity, turning to the creed of open education. In 2001, Massachusetts Institute of Technology started to make course information available online. MIT OpenCourseWare (www.ocw.mit.edu) now contains over 1,800 courses, open to all, denying only the promise of a diploma. The program became almost an instant success. OCW averages one million visits each month, hitting a record high of two million hits a month in 2007. Almost half of the site’s visitors in 2005 were self-learners, according to a report completed in 2006.

With OCW gaining so much popularity, other schools have followed suit. In the fall of 2007, Yale made course materials for seven popular courses available online and will add nearly 30 more within the next three years. Carnegie Mellon has launched its Open Learning

Initiative with 11 subjects. Setting up a free account even allows users to track their progress in the same way students track grades.

The Utah OpenCourseWareAlliance, a collaboration of seven universities in Utah offering 145 courses in total, became the first open courseware system publicly funded by the state. In spring of 2007, Stanford University established a task force, Stanford Open Education Initiative, to explore open education options. And the trend is not limited to only these schools: many institutions across the world have followed suit and created similar programs, furthering educational opportunities for all.

But while so many schools are hopping on the free education bandwagon, Harvard is still hanging out by the side of the road.

SHARING IS CARING

Some within the Harvard community oppose Harvard’s resistance to a more open educational approach. One such rebel is Andrew J. Magliozzi ’05, founder of Finalsclub.org, a Facebook-meets-Wikipedia Web site meant to meet all your study needs. The site, which is currently being revamped and is set to launch on Oct. 14, contains blog notes of popular Harvard lectures. Past bloggers include students enrolled in the course, as well as TFs. An added component of the site is an interactive forum where users can create an account, make a group, invite friends to join, and assign various tasks (i.e. lecture notes for certain lectures), all in an effort to promote more effective learning and more transparency among study groups.

Taking into account the competitiveness of Harvard students, the Web site allows for three different “levels” of sharing: group sharing, college sharing, and world sharing. Magliozzi, for one, hopes students will choose to share their information with the world. One of his goals is to use the internet to connect and link different texts and lectures; ideally, students reading about Mankiw’s lecture on marginal utility can click on a link that brings them to a Brown professor’s take on it.

Free education, however, does come with its own price tag.

TECHNICAL GLITCHES

Finalsclub.org is facing heavy opposition from the University, starting with legal concerns. Harvard’s general counsel writes in an email to a professor, “Under the federal Copyright Act of 1976, a lecture is automatically copyrighted as long as the professor prepared some tangible expression of the content—notes, an outline, a script, a video or audio recording.”

In addition, according to the Harvard College Handbook for Students, “Students who sell lecture or reading notes, papers, translations, or who are employed by a tutoring school or term paper company, are [liable for disciplinary action] and may be required to withdraw.”

Last spring, one of Magliozzi’s bloggers was asked by the course’s professor to remove his or her blog or face expulsion. The former undergrad, who wishes to remain anonymous, immediately took down the blog. The student still believes passionately in the site, however, saying, “I understand that professors’ words are often their intellectual property, but I think what we are paying for in education is more the chance to interact personally with that professor…as well as the opportunity for writing and feedback. I think the availability of valuable insights and subjects to learn for those who don’t have the privilege of being in college is a pretty great thing.”

OPEN SUPPORT

Some Harvard educators, however, support Magliozzi’s mission. Professor Gordon Teskey writes in an e-mail, “It seems to me teaching is a calling and a mission, the purpose of which is to reach as many people as possible.”

Kyle A. Thomas, a former TF and blogger for Science B-62: “The Human Mind,” praises the effect of his blog. “Everyone in the class loved the blog. I had students come up to me in other sections and personally thank me for providing this resource,” he writes in an e-mail.

One of Thomas’s students, Alex B. Lipton ’11, is proof of the blog’s popularity: “Kyle’s blog was a tremendous resource when reviewing lecture notes,” writes Thomas in an e-mailed statement. If every TF followed Thomas’s lead, he adds, “everyone would be better prepared and more interested in lecture material.”

The biggest issue facing open education is the simple fact that it is free. Aside from the pretty penny Harvard collects from regular University tuition, it also makes a significant profit from online distance education classes through the FAS Extension School: course prices range from $800 for undergraduate credit to $1725 for graduate credit.

Resistance to open education is not the only instance of the University denying free access to its resources in part, at least, for the sake of revenue. Just take a look at the Ivy League’s Borrow Direct interlibrary loan program in which all the Ivies—except Harvard—take part, despite the fact that Harvard has the fourth largest library collection in the world. Although Harvard does participate in a type of ILL program, it usually slaps charges onto the loans.

Using Google as an example of how successful and in-demand free knowledge truly is, Thomas accuses Harvard of being “caught up in old conceptions of property and economics as selling products. Once we realize that…development of ideas is helped and not hurt with open information…the better off we will all be.”

James S. Treadway ’08 brings up the point that we are very lucky as Harvard students to have such great academic resources, and we should share the wealth, saying in an e-mail, “I think top education institutions could do well to extend what they have to people who aren’t lucky enough to be there themselves.”

Despite would-be prohibitive rules and regulations, students still have the opportunity and ability to further the call for more open education. Magliozzi says, “I can only enable you, but the students have to do it. If this is something students want, it will happen.”

Magliozzi lives by the mantra “learn to teach, teach to learn,” and hopes students will follow his lead. He continues, “Teach the world and learn better.” Or at least cheaper.