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Break Down Barriers and Constructing Courses: A summary of the C21U Unconfrence on Open Courseware at Georgia Tech

Center for 21st Century Universities (C21U), frequently employs the image of an inventor experimenting in his garage as a metaphor for the Center's approach to higher education innovation. In a garage, constraints such as prohibitive bureaucracies or established practices do not exist. The garage model allows for the uninhibited flow of ideas, experimentation, and on occasion, failure. Following this idea, C21U and the Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning (CETL) hosted the first Catalyst Unconference Workshop on Open Courseware at Georgia Tech as a way of experimenting with a new approach to idea generation.

The C21U unconference on OCW invited a range of interested parties to participate in the collaborative event; attendees ranged from University administrators to recent graduates interested in offering feedback on their educational experience. Additionally, most of the Institute's colleges were represented. The unconfrence did not start with clearly predefined conversation tracks; upon arrival participants posted notecards with their ideas on a wall and subsequently organized them into groups they found most useful.

Within the subject of Open Courseware topics and ideas varied widely: One group took on the issue of defining the problem – “What does Open Courseware mean for Georgia Tech?” Another group identified the key stakeholders. A third group contemplated the manner in which collaboration might be constructed at a University with a free and open curriculum. The last group set about the task of exploring the role of institutional barriers such as cost and legalities.

The larger conversation that occurend during the summary and presentation of group activity revealed a layered discussion that, at its core, focused on value. Some discussed quantifiable value: “How much money will it cost to participate in the OCW community?” “How much effort is required to overcome the legal hurdles?” Another discussion focused on the value of the class and classroom experience in the wake of disruptive technology like Open Courseware, and raised question such as:

If a professor no longer has to lecture on the content of the course materials, how does this affect the classroom experience?" and "How do we cultivate self-motivated learners?"

Adoption of an OCW model at Georgia Tech would require that professors, lecturers, and TAs invent new ways to add value to the classroom experience. The Open Courseware model scrutinizes the constituent parts that comprise a class, and asks questions such as "Does a a "class" consist of the content that can be packed into a ninety minute lecture slot, or is a class a collection of smaller pieces that can be deconstructed and reassembled in a variety of ways as the students deems fit? Alternatively, if the content already exists online, what is the benefit of placing a faculty member with a group of students?

Finally, the discussion on Open Courseware raised the question the value of Universities an an institution. If one extracts the value of a lecture from the University, what is the value, at least in a learning context, of the other functions of a University? Certainly students matriculate through an institution like Georgia Tech to obtain more than simply book knowledge – they seek a "college experience" with the concurrent socialization that occurs when transitioning from childhood into adulthood. They create and foster meaningful connections both professionally and personally. They expect an institution like Georgia Tech to draw boundaries around the perimeter of a particular curriculum and deem them necessary for competency in a field of study; hopefully signifying to an employer a certain level of employability. But what does this say about the sustainability of Universities as institutions? Should Georgia Tech keep its curriculum proprietary and continue charging students the increasing tuition rates necessary to maintaining the status quo? Should Georgia Tech experiment with innovative practices, with the associated risk, that might quality courseware for everyone in the hopes that this maintains its value as an institution in a changing market? Are there other alternatives?

Ultimately, the C21U Catalyst Unconference on Open Courseware assembled the engaged a range of university thought-leaders and invested stakeholders to lay the groundwork for future conversations about Open CourseWare at Georgia Tech. The final output of this workshop is displayed on C21U's Open Courseware wiki here, and everyone is invited to build upon the conversation and propose a list of action items to move forward.

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