Global Online Ed: Where's Canada?

World embraces 'Open Courseware' but only Capilano College joins.

By Michael Geist 15 Jan 2008 |

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at or online at

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160 colleges are in.

In 1999, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) faculty gathered to consider how they could use the Internet to advance knowledge and educate students around the world in science and technology. The result was an ambitious plan -- make the institute's course materials, including syllabi, lecture notes, and exams, freely available online for a global audience.

Two years later, a pilot project called the MIT Open Courseware debuted with 50 courses. A year later, the project formally launched with 500 courses. Today, MIT Open Courseware features nearly every course offered by the institute -- about 1800 in all. While students must still attend MIT to obtain a degree, accessing its courses requires little more than a computer with an Internet connection.

More than 90 per cent of MIT's faculty voluntarily participates in the program, offering not only their course materials, but also hundreds of audio and video podcasts. The courses are published under open licences that encourage users to reuse, redistribute, and modify the materials for noncommercial purposes. The user base includes educators planning their own courses, students using the MIT materials to complement courses at their own institutions, and millions of self-learners who use the materials to enhance their personal knowledge.

MIT Open Courseware attracts over two million visits each month, with more than half of the visitors coming from outside the United States. Videos of science and math lectures have proven particularly popular. For example, the video lectures of Prof. Gilbert Strang, who teaches linear algebra, are viewed 200,000 times per month.

A global consortium

What started with just MIT has grown into a consortium of dozens of universities from around the world that has published 5,000 courses in many different languages. China leads the way with 30 universities. In all, 160 universities and colleges from 20 countries, including Japan, Colombia, Vietnam, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia, have committed to publish at least 10 courses in open courseware format so that the materials are freely available on a non-commercial basis.

The Open Courseware initiative, which recently branched out to high school materials, is an exciting story of the potential of the Internet, of universities fulfilling their missions as educational leaders, and of the desire of educators around the globe to share their knowledge.

Yet it is also a story in which Canada is largely absent. The sole Canadian participant in the Open Courseware consortium is Capilano College, a relatively small school with 6,700 students located in North Vancouver, British Columbia. The rest of Canadian higher education -- Toronto, York, UBC, Western, Alberta, Queen's, Ottawa, McGill, Dalhousie, Waterloo, and dozens more -- are inexplicably missing in action.

Failure to lead

While collective agreements may restrict the ability to mandate participation, every Canadian university should be able to identify a handful of professors willing to freely post their course materials so that the 10-course minimum can be met. Indeed, it is an initiative in which everyone benefits -- enhanced reputation for the participating professors, name recognition and student recruitment for the institutions, and new access to knowledge for Canadians from coast to coast.

Canadians pride themselves in being one of the world's most connected countries; however, the failure to lead on issues such the Open Courseware consortium and open access to the results of Canadian research suggests that we are still struggling to identify how to fully leverage the benefits to education of new technology and the Internet. Many of Canada's top universities may liken themselves to MIT, but the near-total absence of Canada from the Open Courseware consortium suggests that there is still much to learn.

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