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U of T to further expand open access projects

Misak praises “revolutionary” Coursera partnership and Open UToronto initiative, with eye to future revenues
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The University of Toronto’s open access initiatives have proven successful enough to merit further expansion, vice-president and provost Cheryl Misak announced at a Governing Council meeting last Thursday.

The university’s recent efforts include Open UToronto, an online portal for the university’s freely available content and resources, and a partnership with Coursera to offer massive open online courses (MOOCs).

“You cannot open a newspaper these days without hearing about MOOCs and open publishing,” Misak said of the university’s efforts to position itself in the new educational landscape. “In this kind of potentially revolutionary new technology it is better to be ahead of the curve than behind, and as you’ll see with Open UToronto, we’ve been required to stay ahead of it.”

Open UToronto provides a central location for university research collections, which range from early nineteenth century-Mexican political pamphlets to a history of the early development of insulin, as well as links to open scholarly journals and course materials. Further expansions are forthcoming.

While it may be too early to judge Open UToronto’s success in opening pathways often closed to non-university students, the university has made progress in diversifying its approach to online learning, from the Coursera MOOCs to this year’s new, entirely-online courses.

Misak said the university also plans to record more lectures to free up class time.

“We’re using these online lectures in what’s called a ‘classroom way,’” she said. “Students can listen to the lectures at home and in-class time can be used
for discussions.

“We’ve also found it’s especially useful for students whose first language isn’t English — they can watch the lecture twice if they need to.”

Of all the university’s open access initiatives, none has attracted more attention than its partnership with Coursera, an educational technology company. Over 200,000 students have registered for one of U of T’s five available courses, though the number of students completing the courses is considerably lower.

For Charmaine Williams, a professor at the Faculty of Social Work, online courses offered a chance to reach a far wider audience than she would have been
able to otherwise.

“I decided to do it because I thought I wasn’t going to get the opportunity again to do public education about mental illness,” Williams said of her decision to offer
‘The Social Context of Mental Health and Illness’ online this winter. “A lot of students in my class are in fact affected by mental illness, or their family members or friends are, and they’ve said they just really want to learn more about it and create discussions amongst themselves.”

Near the end of her presentation Misak briefly discussed the fiscal implications of open access. While stressing that online courses are “no attempt to teach our students in a less expensive, less personal way,” Misak noted there were several revenue possibilities open to discussion.

“There will always be a completely open way of taking the exams,” she said. “But if you want a certificate of mastery or achievement, there would be some charge for that, and the university would get some of it.”

Misak also briefly discussed the option of licensing some of the University of Toronto’s courses to two-year colleges
in the United States.