What Is the Open Course Library?

Spurred on by a desire to save money for their state and the students within it, Washington officials have set out to offer course materials for the 81 most popular community college classes online and for free (or nearly free). Known as the Open Course Library, this project aims to revolutionize how students obtain textbooks. However, educators in the state are now facing the difficult challenge of actually compiling a quality information archive from open-source materials. Schools offering Archival Studies degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

The Program

According to a 2009 article in The New York Times, college students spend between $700 and $1,100 per year on textbooks. That can hit community college students especially hard; for some, the cost of books can account for almost half of their tuition, creating a significant barrier to attending school. Legislators in Washington State want to ease that burden by providing students with all necessary course materials online for a cost that ranges from free to $30.

To do so, Washington has commissioned a team of Web designers, college instructors and librarians to scour the Internet looking for the best open-source learning material available. That includes free textbooks, interactive assignments and even educational YouTube videos. The team will compile what they find into a curriculum for the 81 most popular courses in the state, in subjects ranging from philosophy to biology to literature.

Once these materials are collected, instructors across the state are free to incorporate as much of them as they wish into their curriculum. They can customize their classes at will, even supplementing e-books with printed texts if they desire. Though it could be perceived otherwise, Washington's initiative has little to do with creating a standardized program of study statewide - they simply want to make the most popular knowledge accessible to all.

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The Problems

As one might expect, a major undertaking like this comes with its share of difficulties. Appropriately, among the most troublesome for state workers is the issue of funding. When no satisfying free textbook is available for a given subject, the state's $30 cap often becomes untenable. However, some e-book publishers, convinced of the program's potential, have offered their products to the state at a discount.

Another long-term issue is how those compiling this material edit it together. Copying and pasting data from a number of different Internet sources can be a daunting task, not just because of quality control but also when it comes to divergence of voices, teaching styles and more. Some teachers have claimed it would be easier just to write their own textbooks from scratch.

The Future

One wonders if creating textbooks from scratch is such a crazy idea. Right now, Washington's developing a patchwork curriculum; how long until they just commission various education experts to write their own textbooks, which can then be made open-source? Washington's Open Course Library is an experiment which has just begun, but its combination of a drive to save money, a desire to increase access to education and an eye toward innovation makes it a project to watch.

Occasionally, scholarly works are published which are required to be available as open-source material. Read more about the Open Access mandate.

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