Yale Course Material—Rip, Mix, and Burn

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

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The short version: Yale now offers a range of course materials online free to the public. While currently the number of courses is rather limited, the scope of materials for each class is substantial and more thorough than current alternatives. The Yale Online Initiative isn’t perfect, but it is a huge step in the right direction, and an impressive foray into opening up the knowledge production of the University. (The Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed cover the story, but the commenters on The Chronicle story sort of miss the point—more on this below.)

The long version: A couple of weeks ago I received an email from a man named Tom Conroy inviting me to participate in an online press conference to announce a new Yale initiative. Although the email did not indicate much, it suggested that it was to announce an initiative in online learning.

As the readers of this blog probably know, one of my substantial concerns (read continuing rants) is about the massive resistance of institutions and educational professors to making their material available to those outside the walls of the institutions. Inevitably when I talk to academics about using blogs one of the first questions I get is “how do I prevent those who are not in my class from seeing the material” (to be fair this is not everyone’s response but it certainly makes up a majority of academics to whom I talk). I have a lot of snarky responses to this question, all of which basically boil down to are you an academic concerned about educating people or are you egoist only out for your own good, who thinks you own the right to knowledge. I am rather fond of pointing out that it seems problematic that the “public academic” is a subset of the larger more prominent term “academic.” Shouldn’t public be the default value? At any rate I agreed to participate in this press conference prepared to be disappointed by yet another attempt to make academic production available to the public, but then I started to read their material and wander around their site, and I was more than pleasantly surprised. After the phone conference I have to admit, Yale gets right, this is one of the more impressive online initiatives I have seen. No, it isn’t perfect, but this is many steps in the right direction and those who crafted this initiative deserve a significant amount of credit.

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On the surface Yale’s Initiative seems just like a logical progression from MIT’s Open Course Ware. With MIT’s project they offer course material on something like 1800 course. However, what MIT offers is little more than an enhanced syllabus for each course; a course overview followed by a calendar of readings and a few assignments. So, while MITs material is vast varied and free, its use is rather limited. True I as an academic often consult open course ware when I am designing a syllabus or looking at how various subjects are taught, the use value doesn’t extend much beyond the “here is an outline of how to conduct a course” model.

Yale took this model and improved upon it. Instead of trying to give away all the course outlines they focused on providing all the course material for a few select courses (right now there are only seven courses offered but we were told that there are plans to add 30 more). In addition to syllabi for each class, Yale offers a high definition video of each class session (unedited-offered in a variety of formats), assignments, audio only of each class session, as well as a written transcript of each session. (Here is a screen shot.)

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A couple of important points about this. First Yale has taken into account a range of learning styles and opportunities, that is for people who want to read transcripts they are available, if you want to listen on your commute to work but can’t watch the video (use the audio only), if you want to watch the video on your iPod it comes in an iPod friendly format (okay you could also watch it on your Zune, but I sort of assume if you are trying to learn physics you are smart enough to not buy a Zune). In fact they make it easy for you to access all the information, videos transcripts etc. in one large zip file, no need to navigate to all of the files and repeatedly click away. One of the impressive sides of what Yale has done is the user interface, it is not exactly the most aesthetically pleasing with fancy ajax and flash, but it doesn’t need to be, instead the whole site meets web standards (XHTML, CSS, etc.) and is available as an RSS feed. This is important for two reasons: 1. It makes the site accessible to a range of individuals with different abilities—can I tell you how many times I have seen an open access site not even think about these issues. 2. The bandwidth for these sites is going to be relatively low. While for those who access these sites on DSL, cable, or T3 connections this is not a concern, I sense that one of Yale’s visions is to reach a much larger audience. And, in this regard people and institutions with far less computing power than we are used to in American academia should benefit from this material. (Their press release indicates just such a direction, as the courses are going to be available to international education institutions.)

But all of the above is just a well constructed framework, the real importance comes at the bottom of every page, where one finds a creative commons license. Yes, Yale is offering all of this material free of copyright restrictions. In fact Yale has chosen the broadest possible license here, Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License, which means anyone is free to use the material for non commercial purposes as long as the cite the source and agree to share the derivative work as well. And, herein lies the importance of what Yale has done. Rip, mix, (cite) and burn, Yale Courses. (For a much longer engagement on this topic go watch Lawrence Lessig’s talk.) So, for example if I am teaching a course on astronomy (why I would be teaching a course on astronomy is a different matter, but it was first on the Yale list) I can use any of the material, require students watch videos, portions of videos . . .whatever. After the phone conference last night I kept thinking about all of the uses for this. New teachers can watch some of the best in the field present material and “steal” ideas, small colleges can supplement some of their offerings by using this material, educational institutions with limited resources can use this material as a “textbook” and than have in class discussion, if you are teaching a class in a similar subject area your students can use the content to create something new and creative, remix said lecture, in fact I wonder how long until students start uploading these videos to YouTube, . . . Yale seems to have all of this in mind, as they specifically designed “widgets” (okay I know this word is used to the point of having no meaning but . . .) which allow you to embed their course content in your own site (teaching a class on western philosophy and covering the topic of death, embed Prof. Kagan’s class for students who want extra material). I specifically asked about the technical choices in the conference call, and the technical director indicated they purposely choose file formats and codecs that make this possible.This is education done right, the default value is open, not closed, Yale gains nothing by closing the content of their classes, and looses nothing by making it available, in fact I would argue they gain a great deal. Indeed the only two things that seem “locked down” about these courses are the materials for which they do not own copyright, for example some of the poems in the literature class, and the overall framework (it seems that the underlying code for the websites which support the content are owned by Yale so if UTD wanted to do the same thing they would have to write the enabling code from scratch). It is worth noting that they recruited well known faculty who are gifted lecturers and tenured faculty (individuals who have even less of a reason to be protective of their material), its still a volunteer program, so the exception rather than the rule—it would be nice to see this in the future be reversed.

Now if you read the comments on the Chronicle site, and a few others, some are being critical of Yale, suggesting online education is not comprised of lectures, i.e. the worst way to facilitate an online class is point a camera at yourself while you lecture, that is lecture classes are the least productive for students, especially online. But, Yale is not offering online courses here, rather they are offering material from their courses free to anyone who wants to use them. So, if you are an online educator who is concentrating on building online classes you can use as much or little of the material as you want in order to make a successful class. There is no feedback or direct supervision offered by Yale here, but that’s not the point, rather it is a step in the right direction of setting the default value of the academy to “public.”