In an effort to replicate the success of resources like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare website, School of Information Prof. Joseph Hardin has launched a program called dScribe – short for digital scribe – that would make syllabuses, lectures, homework and tests from University classes available to Internet users around the world.

MIT’s OpenCourseWare, a website that includes course materials from more than 1,800 classes at the school, functions as a free educational resource for many people outside the ivy-covered world of academia. According to OpenCourseWare surveys, about half of the site’s users describe themselves as “self-learners” while the other half are students or educators. The site receives more than 1 million hits a month, with about 59 percent of those coming from outside North America.

The dScribe program would function like a public version of CTools, a website where University faculty post course resources for their students.

John Merlin Williams, the executive producer of the Digital Media Commons at the University, said open course websites have value beyond just giving students their lectures and homework assignments, particularly in regions without the educational resources of the United States.

“In an area like health sciences or public health, there’s a lot of interest in making that information global,” Williams said.

Although Williams said he thinks the University could launch the program within two to three years, the development team will have to overcome several obstacles before then.

Hardin’s team will also need to create policies to prevent the site from breaking copyright laws. Legal issues could arise when professors use graphs or pictures they don’t own.

The team will also need to develop a cost-effective way to develop the website. The first five years of MIT’s project cost about $24 million, much of it covered by grants, Hardin said. The dScribe team will need to find funding for the project, whether from the University or from third-party sources.

Although Hardin said the project probably won’t cost as much as MIT’s, Ross School of Business junior Blake Emerson said he’s concerned that the program would take away money from undergraduate education.

“I’d be worried about wondering why my money is going to fund people’s education that don’t go to the University,” he said.

University administrators say the site will also help the University recruit top students. About 40 percent of MIT students said OpenCourseWare “figured significantly” in their decision to enroll at the university.

Hardin said feedback on the prospect of a similar program at the University of Michigan has been positive, citing surveys distributed to University students and faculty.

English Prof. Ralph Williams declined to say whether he supported or opposed the site, but said online resources can’t replace a traditional college education.

“I, for one, would greatly regret a situation in which the University was simply addressing the world without listening to the world,” he said. “Learning is not a spectatorial affair.”

John Merlin Williams said open course websites have more benefits than disadvantage, though.

“By making your learning content publicly available, it’s not the same as having a degree certified by the University,” he said. “It doesn’t really hurt the university in terms of applicants and attendants, that’s what MIT found. It’s a marketing advantage.”

Hardin agreed.

“To get a Michigan education, you’ve got to go to Michigan,” he said.

– Philip Guichelaar contributed to this report.

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