Friday, May 23, 2008


Eva Amsen has an article in this week's issue of The Bulletin—the newspaper published by the University of Toronto (not a student newspaper). You can read her description of how this article came to be published by checking out her Nature network blog [Teaching course and article on OpenCourseWare]. The article is online at The Bulletin. Scroll to the last page.

The article is about OpenCourseWare in general, and the MIT experiment in particular. MIT, and a few other schools, have made a commitment to put course material on a website and make if freely available to anyone who wants to use it. All one has to do is follow the guidelines of the Creative Commons License. MIT retains the rights to the material even though students and other lecturers are free to use it. MIT strips out all material that is copyrighted by third parties; this includes textbook figures and photographs and images taken from other websites. According to the MIT OpenCourseWare Website, it costs between $10,000 and $15,000 to publish each course. The costs will be twice as high if videos of the lectures are posted online.

Eva's article mentions some of the benefits of OpenCourseWare. Not all of them are believable; for example, one third of freshman students claim to have chosen MIT because they were influenced by OpenCourseWare. This probably doesn't mean what one might think.

Eva is a graduate student in our department so she asks, "Why is the the University of Toronto, one of Canada's leading universities, not part of the OpenCourseWare Consortium?" I'd like to address that question, making particular reference to biochemistry courses.

Let's begin by looking at the OpenCourseWare site for the Department of Biology (MIT doesn't have a Biochemistry Department) [Biology].

The first thing you notice is that most of the material is quite old. Some of the courses are from 2004, only one is 2007, and none are 2008. Let's check out the Spring 2006 course in Introductory Biology to see what OpenCourseWare is really like. Two clicks take you to complete audio lectures. You can listen to the lectures or read a transcript of the lecture. There is no supplemental material to speak of and no figures to see. I don't find this very helpful.

Contrast the MIT website with a typical university website like ours at the University of Toronto. We have more than 2000 course websites but the vast majority are restricted to University of Toronto students [Course Catalog]. If you could access the introductory biology course you would find complete powerpoint lectures with all figures and plenty of additional course material. All of it is up to date.

In some department the course material is not password protected [Dept. of Biochemistry] but it is not advertised and outsiders are not encouraged to visit the site. Complete lecture notes with figures are made available to the students. In my opinion, these notes are much more valuable to students taking our courses than the MIT OpenCourseWare lecture notes because we can post the figures without having to be wary of copyright infringement (especially if access is restricted).

Thus, one of the biggest downsides of OpenCourseWare is that the notes have to be stripped of figures. Why should our department go to great effort and expense to create a parallel site for external viewing when we know full well that the stripped down notes are practically useless? There has to be a compensating gain, right?

Eva argues that the gain is significant.
While the implementation of OpenCourseWare asks for extra work from its faculty in preparing high-quality, legally distributable course materials, this works as an incentive to produce better teaching materials. As a result, making course materials available online can not only raise an institution's visibility but also its quality.
I don't believe this for a minute. The quality of lecture material on the web is highly variable and the fact that it's freely available does not to seem to have much effect on quality. If the argument holds, we would expect the biochemistry lectures at MIT to be outstanding examples of high quality lectures.

Let's check it out. The introductory biology course from 2006 (the latest one on the web) has ten lectures on "foundations." Three of them are on biochemistry. The first one [Biochemistry 1] is all about cancer cells. The material is present at a high school level, at best. The second lecture (Biochemistry 2) is not available on the website. The third one [Biochemistry 3] is on enzymes. Here's how it begins ...
OK. So we’re going to continue with the discussion about biochemistry, and specifically focus on enzymes today. Professor Sive introduced those to you briefly in her last lecture. I’m actually covering for her today. This is one of her lectures but she has given me her material, so hopefully it will go fine. She wanted me to remind you a little bit about energetics, specifically that a negative Delta G in a reaction implies that the reaction can occur spontaneously, that is if the products have lower energy than the reactants. And so given enough time this will happen in that direction.
It's pretty much downhill from then on.

I checked out a lot of lectures on the MIT biology OpenCourseWare site and I don't see much evidence that the faculty has taken the time to prepare high quality lectures. Furthermore, if I had to evaluate the quality of teaching at MIT based on the OpenCourseWare, I don't think it would enhance the reputation of the university.

One of the main arguments for OpenCoureWare has been altruistic. The idea is that a really good university should make its lectures available to the world so that lecturers at "lesser" universities can copy it and use it in their classrooms (an argument that is also condescending). In my experience, the lecturers at smaller schools often give much better lectures in biochemistry than those at the big research intensive universities. If I'm looking for a really good textbook reviewer, for example, I'm much more likely to find one at the University of Maine or the University of Nebraska than at Harvard or Berkeley.

If every school puts up their stripped down versions of lectures, you can be assured that there will be some real gems out there. On the other hand, you can be certain there will be lots of garbage as well. OpenCourseWare may end up being just another way of cluttering up the web with useless information, or worse. If every school participates in the consortium, for example, you would probably find 100 incorrect definitions of a gene, or the Central Dogma, and 100 false conception of free energy at the top of your Goggle search. What's the point of promoting that?

Do you want to learn about enzymes on the web? Here's where you go to get free and accurate information from people who know what teaching is all about [Enzymes] [Enzymes] [Enzymes] .


  1. I'm a physicist and the norm in our field feels more open than you describe; e.g. we started the e-print archive ( While your remarks (especially your criticisms of the Bulletin article author) apparently make sense for your field, I'm not sure they make quite so much sense for physics.

  2. I think that it's important to define (at least provisionally) the purpose of online course material. In the past 5 years that I've been TAing, more and more students have been asking that all course material be put online. So, for example, in the case of my supervisor's 4th year Biology course, we've started doing that.

    One of the big problems that we've been noticing is that students are using the online material as a 'crutch'. I can't count the number of times that someone complained that 'the answer to question X on the exam wasn't in the course notes'. 'Yes,' I always reply, 'but the prof. discussed it in class.' At best, people print off the course notes in advance and scribble extra notes on them, at worst (i.e., usually) they figure they'll just get them before the exam - so they don't take their own notes.

    If most profs are planning to use the lecture notes only as guides - then what's the point of preparing high-quality presentations, and paying a lot of money in order to make them open-access? The profs I speak to generally say that the presentations are complementary to the lectures; they're not meant to stand on their own. Is it really helpful if people outside the school are able to download them*?

    *Obviously they may be able to use individual figures and things like that...

  3. anonymous says,

    I'm a physicist and the norm in our field feels more open than you describe; e.g. we started the e-print archive ( While your remarks (especially your criticisms of the Bulletin article author) apparently make sense for your field, I'm not sure they make quite so much sense for physics.

    I went to the site you referred to and I didn't see any examples of open course notes. Did you post the wrong URL?

  4. I went to the site you referred to and I didn't see any examples of open course notes.

    arxiv e-print archive is roughly the equivalent to PLOS, but without review. First it handled preprints, now AFAIU it can be the only publication, with review and critique online (ideally). I would guess the point is that physicists was early adopters.

    Peering (sic) from the outside in, I dunno why the course material is expected to be perfect or unique. If more universities can afford to do this, the problem of different and incorrect definitions will hopefully become obvious. Perhaps it will tend to enforce higher quality and communication, as well as reviews like this may do?

    Meanwhile, as for outside free access, YMMV. (But I would argue that you get more than your money's worth. :-P)

  5. Greetings,
    I have downloaded the entire courseware from the MIT. I do intend to agree with you on the fact that there is no visual appeal in those presentations. Also, I did go into the biochemistry section of the Toronto University Web site. I am an e-learning content developer and in my experience, I felt that we could probably have a combination of the two. We could have the powerpoint presentations along with a voice over, explaining the concepts put on the slides to a greater detail so that the learner appreciates the material and as you had mentioned the University also gets appropriate recognition. These days, people generally fall for open courseware and generally assume that Universities providing such material are of very high standards (no offense against any University. Hence, I feel that those universities that put up such open courseware must take some time in evaluating the quality of the material and also put themselves in the listener's shoes before hosting such videos on their portal.

    Vytheeshwaran Vedagiri
    Biochemistry For U, "Abirami" 4-A Devadi Street,
    Mylapore, Chennai 600 004, Tamilnadu, India
    Ph: +91-44-9380531319