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…

14 thoughts on “The Future of OCW, and “OCW 2.0””

  1. Sustainability is or should be intergrated within the initial business plan, though based upon my experience this does not occur in “reality” of the majority of plans.

  2. I kind of agree with this, although I wouldn’t call this change a move from 1.0 to 2.0, but rather an attempt to find better use for the OCW content than “marketing”.

    I see OCWs similar kind of actors as libraries – they are support operation for learning and teaching. To ensure that the OCWs (actually libraries, too) will stay relevant they must start to serve the learning and teaching much better.

    OCW’s content could very well link to online courses with goal-directed, supervised and evaluated learning that will in the end give some kind of “recognition”.

    On Wikiversity we already have done this with some courses with weekly program and assignments. You do them all and will get a mark “passed”.

    Also, e.g. in Estonia one Wikiversity course have been open for anyone to join. If a student wants to have a certificate he or she must “register” to the University and pay a fee. Giving the diploma naturally requires a bit more work from teachers, as they must check the performance of the student a bit more closely. Many students have decide to register right in the end of the course.

    So, I assume the OCW sustainability model will be: the Universities will keep on providing open content for anyone interested to do self-study (like a library). This OCW offering will be there 1) because of marketing value, 2) to get better students who already have done some self-study with the OCWs, 3) to provide better support for all the courses provided by the University. On top of this, the Universities will provide through the OCWs online courses, continuous learning, in-service / updating training, preparatory coaching for future students who are planning to apply and why not full online programs, too.

    However, the point is that the OCWs as a such are not “teaching” anyone, and there is still need for it. 🙂

  3. OCW – in a commercial world, where is the balance? It’s like a pendulum, with more resources available (money) more OCW available for free, and then…In an educational utopian, I love to see a free OCW, but that may not be liked by the entrepreneurs or commercial training businesses – because business means profits (at least to survive). In a world where education (HE) is run based on business models, would OCW be sustainabale?
    Just wonder!

  4. Interesting, but I would like to offer a different future scenario. First, it depends on how you judge the OER 1.0s to be dead. If the OER model becomes ubiquitous because universities routinely produce OER content, and therefore, the need to have a separate initiative to make open content available disappears or morphs into federated recommender/discoverability tools, does that mean they are dead? Maybe, that’s your call. I do think it is a more likely scenario.

    The difficulty for OER 1.0s moving forward will to some extent be sustainability and some of those issues will be resolved merging of those less sustainable into those more sustainable. OCW, for instance, has created its sustainability model via the OCW Consortium. Other initiatives such as Connexions and MERLOT are taking somewhat different tracks but there is clearly a ‘closeness’ emerging between them. That’s a good thing. There are also distinct differences between local OCWs (at universities and in different geographies) and in the models between OCW which ‘mandates’ a course-based approach versus Connexions which is focused on structured, modular content and MERLOT which is resource-based, mostly modular, any format etc.

    The only reason that OERs exist is to be reused. This is best done through adaptation to local context rather than adoption, as is. Most OERs do not support adaptation at granular levels. For reuse and adaptation to provide the full value that OERs could achieve there needs to be a greater focus on content format and “True Interoperability”. The missing piece is an open source, offline, authoring and aggregation tool. Something I am working with several OER initiatives to address. This also changes the perspective on the future considerably.

    Someone will always have to pay for the cost of providing education and someone will always have to pay for its consumption. OCW China is going down a track that was first suggested in the late 90s by James J O’Donnell, Jerrold Maddox (Penn State back in those days), Mike Zastrocky (Gartner) and others where content/courses are free and added services and accreditation are what’s paid for. A bit like what you are suggesting. This moves away from the current model (bottoms on seats per unit of time) to an alternative business model for post compulsory education. A better model to deal with the huge gap between supply and demand in education, but will take longer than 3 years to take on because it disrupts the revenue model for most universities.

    Something not too different to what you are suggesting is done by Open Universities Australia, although it is still a fee for service model. The OUA units are offered independently and the accreditation can occur retrospectively. Some years ago when they were still called Open Learning Australia we started going part way down the track you have suggested (albeit fee for service), and built a quite advanced infrastructure to support it, but that was rolled back and dismantled because it created competition to the shareholder universities (amongst other things).

    On balance, I like what you have suggested but disagree with the timing and way it will play out.

  5. Where can I learn more about the small pilot program at BYU independent study? Are you simply referring to IS or is it something else?

  6. In my opinion this new perspective about OCW project is really dangerous, because the most important factor of this movement is this outcome: collaborate. It´s the philosophy of free publishing… and nobody could obtain any money with these contents. If we began to speak about any benefit of different higher institutions, the project will die, or we will speak about other thing… but never a new version of OCW.

  7. Hi David – It seems plausible that things might develop as you and Teemu indicate. But an awful lot depends on pricing. If using OCW can lower the cost to students of distance learning, it seems likely that there would be a market initially … particularly because a certificate or degree could be part of the bundle. Longer term I doubt that we’ll see a lot of OCW used in existing public and private institutions of higher education. The margins needed to support the infrastructure of existing institutions just won’t be sufficiently high to compete with lower-priced learning opportunities that use the same OCW content. Just a guess on my part. Nice post. Thanks. … Gary

  8. A path to sustainability for OpenCourseWare: receive land grant endowments — after precedents set by land grant universities — from communities thirsting to upskill or retrain jobseekers. OCW institutions could lever such land grants by forming learning partnerships that include live online links to virtual tutors and teaching assistants. The value of the community land grant endowments will grow as local talent builds skills with value in rapidly growing markets for knowledge-based services. Further information on this approach is at and


    Mark Frazier
    Openworld, Inc.
    “Awakening assets for good”
    @openworld (updates via twitter)

  9. I’m get the point that for OCWs to be sustained they have to be hosted and promoted somewhere, and somebody has to pay to do that. But suggesting that Distance education might be the only way to sustain OCWs (I’m assuming because OCWs lend themselves nicely to traditional DE models, and enrolled students in DE courses=$$) is a bit of a narrow view of both DE and OCW. DE is a delivery mode that gets “bodies in seats” in the same way that other delivery modes (eg. f2f) do, although the drivers for this are likely to be different at open learning institutions vs dual mode institutions. OCWs are useful regardless of delivery mode. The higher ed funding models that I’m familiar with are a $ for credits model. Therefore, in my admittedly simplistic view of the problem, I understand it to be more of an issue of credits vs non credits–if students aren’t paying for credits, and OCWs aren’t being used in some way that generates credits, then they can’t be sustained, regardless of delivery mode.

  10. I agree. For our open education projects ( we are already trying to build a sustanaible model to let the project survive as longer as possible.

  11. Your insight about credits and sustainability I think is correct, but Gary’s point about pricing is huge. Pricing of academic credits is part of the bloated, no-connection-to-true-costs fix that higher ed is in. There is another path — and that is CE. CE is a credit or hour-based system with requirements for licensure in many professions. The field of CE is undergoing a major shirft to online delivery now too — but the point is that CE prices rock — $20 – $30/hr or less in most fields.

    The CE program I direct is clinically-oriented and emphasizes post-combat behavioral health. We have hours and hours of open access material and more material for-pay at our ridiculously low CE prices. This represents another strategy for Open Resource initiatives in universities trying to sustain themselves. Of course it means producing things that people actually need professionally.

  12. I’m wondering whether OER is sustainable by embedding into existing institutional systems… institutions *should* be producing good quality, IPR-defensible materials for their own students… if they are doing this, why not stick them online? (And if they are not, is this not a more pressing problem…)

    Only by seeing OER release as a seperate and discrete institutional function do we incur specific costs that must be covered via commercial activity.

  13. Good to see some more sustainable business models for OCW. I think the “freemium” model of leaving some content open but charging for premium courses could work. What about other models such as advertising-supported learning? I’m not talking banner ads in eLearning but other forms of advertising such as product placement or graduate advertising are feasible.

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