“Foundations” is an occasional series of informal question and answers sessions with employees of The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to give them an opportunity to explain their work.

Catherine Casserly is a program officer who directs the Foundation’s work to make educational materials freely available on line. The open educational resources movement, as this effort has come to be known, funds universities and other institutions to make high quality educational materials freely available on the World Wide Web. Innovative use of copyright law allows users to change and augment material to suit their needs. Starting five years ago by funding MIT’s decision to make its curriculum available for online, the MIT effort has evolved into the Open Courseware Consortium, which embraces 170 institutions worldwide that offer a total of 5,000 courses to an estimated 1.9 million unique visitors a month. And the Foundation’s overall support for open educational resources stretches far beyond. Experts in the field estimate that the Consortium’s contributions are only a quarter of the total open educational resources now available online.

Casserly has a Ph.D. in the economics of education from Stanford University and a B.A. in mathematics from Boston College.  After college, she taught mathematics in Kingston, Jamaica and tutored in a high security prison. She also has served as a trustee for the San Mateo County Board of Education.

Let’s look back. What was the state of educational resources on the Internet when Hewlett started working in the area?

At the time, there was a lot of educational content on the Web, but it generally wasn’t very high quality and it was hard to find the real gems. People were just beginning to understand how they could use the Web as a tool for education. They were putting things up, but weren’t really harnessing the potential power. It was text, but it didn’t take advantage of the potential for interaction. Now online communities are forming around it.

How did Hewlett get involved?

For us it started with two things. We knew we wanted to do something with education and technology that no one else was doing. And we were just starting explore that when a proposal came in from MIT to put its course materials on line for free.  And we were on our way. This month MIT will celebrate the publication of its entire curriculum – 1,800 courses — on its OpenCourseWare site.

What were the concerns and obstacles when you started?

There was lots of skepticism about the quality of the content.  If “open” means free, free must mean of lesser quality. In fact, what we found was that when you put out your materials out there for the world to see, your reputation is on the line and you’re going to put out the best quality content that you can.

Why was it important to do something? What advantage is there in having educational resources on the Web?

Education off the Web can be hard to access. If it’s college level, you have to pay for it. The Web is free.  And it has creative force. One of the early attractions for us was that it provided access to knowledge in ways that previously just weren’t possible.  
That’s the first step. But it’s not enough by itself. It’s not just putting content on the Web. It’s how it gets used, and if it gets used in ways that change teaching. And that’s what’s starting to happen.  We want to find ways to deepen education that go beyond broadening access.

What’s an example of a way education is being “deepened” by moving onto the Web?

The work that Hewlett is funding at Carnegie Mellon University is a great example.  Researchers with the Open Learning Initiative there have been conducting experiments to see how students learn on the web and some of the results have been remarkable. With extensive feedback loops to check to see if they are learning, and chances for them to interact with the same material in different ways, the research is showing they’re mastering material in half the time it takes in a traditional classroom.

Let’s say you have an algebra problem. You can try to learn the material on the Web just like in a text book. But if you have problem with mastering it with the visual information being offered, you can click on an audio that has a professor who is very skilled in using words to dissect it. You also might have text, perhaps in different languages. So you have multiple ways to represent the same concepts.

We now have a way to test the effectiveness of a curriculum in a way a teacher standing in front of a class can’t.  When a teacher teaches he or she teaches to the whole class, which includes students of different learning styles and needs.  It’s hard for them to differentiate among them in that setting.

So how is the role of a teacher different in the world of open educational resources?

There’s a phrase that’s bandied about: teachers are no longer the sage on the stage, they’re the guide on the side. They coach individual learning styles.  Now that technology can help students learn a lot on their own, teachers become more like tutors, helping students when they get stuck.

For some, it eliminates the role of teachers entirely, right?

Some people learn on their own already. They’re self starters. They go to textbooks, they find information, and just do it. But there are other people who don’t learn well that way. I think we may be changing the role of teachers with open educational resources, but we’re not eliminating it. In fact, it might give teachers ways to individualize teaching for each student in a way that wasn’t possible when teaching a whole class and having to direct a lesson to the middle of the class’s learning curve.  

What are the implications of having high quality educational materials freely available without issuing credentials like diplomas to confirm a student has mastery of a subject?

Right now the educational materials on the Web also serve to guide a student to an institution where they might want to enroll to learn about a certain subject. But I think eventually we will see the creation of institutions to issue credentials based on self-guided study via the Web. That will probably involve payments for testing and evaluation.

Aren’t copyright laws an obstacle to all of this?

Traditionally, they have been. We’re trying to move to “copy left.” That’s really the term they use. It’s a concept of legal constructions that provide much more flexibility so the creator of content still owns it, and those using it must attribute it to them, but the owner can choose the ways they are willing to share it with others.  A key player in this is Creative Commons, a non-profit corporation that Hewlett and other foundations support that helps people who create content define a range of legal control that allows certain shared use of their material.

You know, only a very small number of professors ever make money on textbooks. Everyone thinks they are going to hit, but most don’t. I suppose if you’re one of the few, you might give up some revenue stream by making a text available in this way. We’re looking into making these books available for free to those who can’t afford them. And there are other models emerging. There’s a for-profit company planning to make textbooks available for free and makes its money selling the supplemental materials like flashcards for mobile phones.

But intellectual property issues have been huge and will continue to be a factor.

Describe the current state of the movement.

Now we have many thousands of people across the world looking at this material every month, so people have access to knowledge that they previously didn’t.  

What might be even more interesting is that people are contributing quality content who aren’t associated with an institution of learning. So in some ways we’re beginning to change the notion of who owns knowledge in a university and how it gets shared. It begins to create a culture of sharing. That’s a fundamental shift.

Then, too, people are generating and sharing knowledge as communities that are not part of a university, in places like Wikipedia. We’re doing what we can to help build those models as well using the values of open educational resources.  

So is this movement toward open educational resources now self-sustaining?

It definitely has an incredible amount of momentum, but all the problems are not yet solved. The infrastructure isn’t there for it to grow on its own. It still needs support and there’s still a lot to learn about its potential. Will it survive? Yes. Will it thrive? It still needs more nurturing. It’s clear that it broadens access to learning. But there’s still work to be done to show what it can contribute in improving the way learning takes place.

Look into your crystal ball. What do you think all this will look like in another decade based on advances in technology and current trends?

We can’t even imagine what the technology will look like in ten years. I think we’ll have a vast library of available knowledge and alternative ways for people to get access to higher education. I think we’ll have institutions that grant credentials for this learning. And I hope we’ll have students who engage in learning in rewarding ways that make them creators of knowledge. And it’s through that creation that they learn. That will be a big turning point.