The Future of OCW, and “OCW 2.0”

About a year ago, I finished 2005-2012: The OpenCourseWars, and thought it quite a fun exercise to try to forecast where things are headed. A few months ago Trey called me a futurist, and I chuckled. Then the Deseret News called me Nostradamus, and I cringed. Perhaps I let what others say about me influence me too much, but I have been spending more and more time thinking about the future of the movement.

As I’ve been pondering the future of the open education movement, I’ve thought particularly about the future of OpenCourseWare initiatives and think I can see something coming a few years down the road. What I see is the end of OpenCourseWare as we know it. Here’s a specific forecast (by being specific I can clearly be either right or wrong):

Every OCW initiative at a university that does not offer distance courses for credit will be dead by the end of calendar 2012.

Now, hopefully they won’t pull their sites and content offline – ongoing access to that material would be really nice. (It’s probably time to start building local mirrors of all the world’s OCWs.) But I strongly suspect that all OCW development and maintenance activity at these schools will have ground to a halt by 2012. Why?

The first generation of OpenCourseWare projects (“OCW 1.0”) had essentially no sustainability plan. These first generation projects were funded by grants and had no means of supporting themselves once the grants ran out – except asking other people and other organizations to donate money. Consequently, in tough economic times (read, “now”) these programs will find themselves at risk. (Please understand that I’m not pointing and laughing; I established one of the larger OCW 1.0’s in the country at USU.)

A new generation of OpenCourseWare projects are built around sustainability plans. These second generation projects are integrated with distance education offerings, where the public can use and reuse course materials for free (just like first generation OCWs) with the added option of paying to take the courses online for credit (there is no way to earn credit from the first generation OCWs). The Open Universities of the UK and the Netherlands, UC Irvine, and the small pilot program at BYU Independent Study are built on this model. These second generation OCWs are simultaneously a powerful public good and effective marketing tools that generate revenue and can likely sustain themselves financially. (We’re studying this sustainability model in a truly fascinating dissertation study at BYU right now.) Schools with first generation OCWs that also offer distance education courses (like USU) could transform themselves into OCW 2.0 programs if they wanted to.

As the second generation model of supporting and sustaining OpenCourseWare projects (“OCW 2.0”) is demonstrated to be effective, the OCW movement will expand rapidly. I anticipate the cost per lead generated from opening courses will prove significantly lower than the cost per lead through other marketing channels. Once this is established, OCW will become a default component of marketing programs at public, private, and for-profit schools that offer distance courses. The number of content-complete courses (as opposed to the often spotty, content sampling approach of OCW 1.0) will explode. The relevance of OCW 1.0 collections may be called into question at this point.

Unfortunately, universities which refuse to offer distances courses cannot sustain their OCW projects with the OCW 2.0 model. It is unclear to me what – besides credit – they could possibly sell in conjunction with their OCW content in order to sustain themselves financially (particularly in lean times when each and every program on campus is being scrutinized).

Perhaps the composition of the OpenCourseWare movement will be quite different three years from now…