Thursday, September 21, 2006

Yale to offer free course video over Internet. Why not Harvard?

Yale is going to offer video of entire classes for free over the Internet starting next year:
The Open Educational Resources Video Lecture Project has received $755,000 for an 18-month pilot phase. The project will create multidimensional packages—including full transcripts in several languages, syllabi, and other course materials—for seven courses and design a web interface for these materials, to be launched in the fall of 2007. If the venture proves successful, Yale hopes to significantly expand its online offerings over the next few years. The new venture joins a growing number of university-based initiatives that use the Internet to make educational materials widely available.
The Yale press release adds that taping has already started this semester, for the following professors:
  • Introduction to the Old Testament, with Christine Hayes, Robert F. and Patricia Ross Weis Professor of Religious Studies;

  • Fundamentals of Physics, with Ramamurti Shankar, John Randolph Huffman Professor and Chair of Physics;

  • Introduction to Political Philosophy, with Steven Smith, Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science.

    Those whose courses are slated for taping next spring include Charles Bailyn, Thomas E. Donnelley Professor of Astronomy; Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology; and Langdon Hammer, Professor and Chair of English.
(See Inside Higher Ed for more details and analysis)

This is great. Previously, the only exposure most members of the public could get to these professors were through books and academic journal articles. Now people will be able to see them in a lecture setting.

Of course, MIT really set the gold standard for freely sharing academic content online with the OpenCourseWare initiative. However, the OCW project mostly shares class materials -- reading lists, handouts, lecture notes, etc. Video content is rare. This is where the Yale initiative gets interesting: Video can really convey much more than simple text materials, and also gives the audience a chance to see what kinds of questions in-class students are asking.

However, I have to question the seed money for this project. The $755,000 (donated by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation) may sound like a lot. But as someone who has had a lot of experience producing television and Internet video content, I have to point out that in order for this initiative to scale to dozens of classes every year, much more will be required. Costs include equipment, video production and editing, creation of Web pages and containers for the video, hosting, new staff, time from existing staff, etc.

I also have to ask, why isn't Harvard taking more of a lead in sharing its academic resources with the global community? We see some piecemeal efforts involving individual schools and departments placing some class materials on the Internet for public consumption. FAS and the Harvard Extension School have actually posted Computer Science podcasts online, but video of class sessions is closed off to the public -- if you want to see anything more than a few samples, you have to pony up thousands of dollars to register for the classes, even if you aren't taking them for credit.

Yes, I understand that video production is expensive, and FAS wants to turn online video into a sustainable endeavor. But it is possible to strike a balance between serving the global public (one of former President Summers' big interests) and creating a successful, self-funding academic program. Can't Harvard at least match Yale's efforts, and provide some complete courses online for free without credit? I mean, seriously -- how big is Harvard's endowment now -- $29 billion dollars? Can't Bok or Knowles sign off on a little seed money and staff time to get something off the ground, perhaps using Extension School Distance Ed programming from previous years?

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