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The Great Wide Open

OpenCourseWareThrough the OpenCourseWare initiative, Tufts is using the power of the Internet to share its greatest resource – its knowledge – across the globe.


You’re a medical student in the Philippines and you want to supplement your epidemiology coursework. Or you’re a dental professor in India, curious about how other schools teach the latest implant techniques. Perhaps you live on a farm somewhere in the rural United States and you want to access information about zoological medicine that is otherwise out of reach.

If you are any of these people, chances are you are taking advantage of Tufts OpenCourseWare (OCW), an initiative to publish course materials free of charge to teachers, students and self-learners around the world.

"Certainly, one resource that Tufts has as an institution to offer the world is its intellectual property, its knowledge," says Nancy Wilson, associate dean of the University College of Citizenship and Public Service and one of the organizers of Tufts' OCW initiative. "One of the ways to do that is sharing this kind of course material."

When MIT began the original OpenCourseWare initiative in 1999, it had to engineer a new system for disseminating course information via the web. The process was much easier for Tufts, which in the mid-1990s had developed the Tufts University Sciences Knowledgebase (TUSK), a robust, multimedia content management system used by faculty and students in the health sciences for course materials and instruction.

The dynamic content organization methods employed by TUSK make it easy for faculty to share content across courses and for students to create personalized information collections.

"[Hal Abelson, an engineering professor at MIT and one of the driving forces behind OCW] was really amazed at the amount and depth of content that we already had on our system and pushed MIT to invite us to join this initiative for content that would complement their own," recalls Mary Lee, associate provost, dean for educational affairs at Tufts’ School of Medicine and self-described "project steward."

Familiar with the concept of OpenCourseWare from his days as MIT's chancellor, Tufts President Lawrence S. Bacow embraced Tufts' participation in the project – one of only a handful of universities in the United States currently involved, according to Lee.

To get the OCW project rolling, content from TUSK has been reverse engineered for greater accessibility via OCW, often stripping it of some of its rich functionality. But Wilson and Lee plan to expand and improve the technology behind OCW to allow Tufts to deliver some of the most compelling course content on the TUSK system as the project evolves, in addition to making it easier for professors to add their courses to OCW.

"What we're also interested in is helping to develop open source learning tools that will impact the way students around the world both access information and learn," explains Lee.

People across the University – from groups as wide-ranging as University Advancement, the Tisch and Hirsh Health Sciences Libraries, University Relations, and Information Technology – collaborated to bring OCW to life. While bringing so many people to the table was no small feat, Lee looks back on the process fondly.

"I think it really spoke to how strongly this feeling of giving externally [was], that this was a very concrete way of being an active citizen, that we as a university could share some of our knowledge with the world," she says.

"They already know that they work for an organization that has a great purpose, which is education," adds Wilson. "But this was even a higher purpose because it was reaching out to the world with that educational resource."

After extensive planning, the OCW website went live this summer and has since been visited thousands of times – with visits to the website increasing each month as awareness of the initiative grows.

Tufts is currently publishing materials for nine courses representing the five professional schools – the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, The Fletcher School, the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts School of Dental Medicine and Tufts School of Medicine. Course selections include Pathophysiology of Infectious Diseases, International Multilateral Negotiation, Oral Public Health and Community Service and Zoological Medicine, which is the most popular course so far.

"The subject is one of those things that is a fringe type subject within veterinary medicine but it’s one that's growing," observes Gretchen Kaufman, assistant professor of environmental and population health at the Cummings School, whose course was a natural fit for OCW because it was already so "data-rich" with content on TUSK. "A lot of other places aren't set up yet to provide adequate resources for their own needs in this area, so I thought it'd be really nice to share this with them and it might enable them to move more quickly into this subject matter."

The focus on public health in the initial offering of courses is not accidental.

"We really wanted to select courses that would be of value internationally," explains Lee. "I think that for us, in the health sciences, international public health-related courses are no brainers."

Susan Hadley, an associate professor of medicine who teaches the Pathophysiology of Infectious Diseases course, says she was drawn to OCW because she felt the class material was of value outside of her Tufts classroom.

"I think an infectious disease course is certainly very applicable to everyday living wherever you are around the world, given the epidemiology of infections and their impact on global economic development," she notes.

OpenCourseWare

"[Our faculty] really have been getting positive responses from folks in terms of hearing from users that the material was of value," says Mary Lee. "And they're realizing that this is a vehicle that really allows them to get their work disseminated to thousands and thousands of people they would never reach otherwise."

As for how those courses were selected, Wilson says it was a matter of working with faculty members who are already attuned to the core goal of OCW – sharing knowledge with the world.

"Those are the people who are already in their courses teaching things that have that aspect to them,” she says. “I don't think it's just coincidental."

For instance, five of the 15 University College Faculty Fellows – professors who take on two-year fellowships to develop civic engagement-oriented projects across Tufts – offer their courses via OpenCourseWare. Kaufman, one of the fellows, values the opportunity to contribute to her field in such a rewarding fashion.

"The most important thing is being able to reach some of these places that are resource-poor," she says. "They otherwise couldn't do what they're trying to do if they didn't have a resource that was free."

The response so far – from a user base including students, self-learners and professors seeking to enhance their own curricula – has been overwhelmingly positive.

"[Our faculty] really have been getting positive responses from folks in terms of hearing from users that the material was of value," says Lee. "And they're realizing that this is a vehicle that really allows them to get their work disseminated to thousands and thousands of people they would never reach otherwise."

Though OCW does not function as a distance learning program (no degrees or course credits are awarded), Lee explains that dynamic education experiences are still taking place.

"What is happening in some countries is that learning communities are developing around particular content," she says. "It's a good indicator of what can happen with the content once it's out there."

Binzhou Medical College in northeastern China, with a staggering enrollment of more than 5,000 medical students, is one of those remote sites that may benefit. Binzhou officials visited the medical school last winter for a briefing on the system. “When we showed them the resources on TUSK and told them that part of this would be available through OCW, they said, ‘Tell us when!’ ” recalls Lee.

Min Xu, a surgical resident at Tufts-New England Medical Center and a 1985 graduate of Binzhou who served as translator during the visit, describes the facilities back home as “pretty primitive” by U.S. standards. “China is still a Third World kind of country—a developing country,” he explains. “The people from Binzhou felt that OCW would be really useful for their students.”

In that spirit, Hadley – also a University College Faculty Fellow – hopes to develop her OCW course into a means for first and second-year medical students at Tufts to communicate with medical students in their fourth year or beyond who are working in the field, possibly in Nicaragua where Tufts students travel every spring. The goal is for the course to be used as an educational resource for both the students and the communities in which they're working.

The University is seeking to expand the initiative over the next several months, with a goal of adding 30 classes by next March and ultimately including courses from the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering. Among the courses slated for addition to OCW is "Producing Films for Social Change," a class taught by former television producer Roberta Oster-Sachs through the University College.

This expansion will be aided in part by a $200,000 grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which Lee – who will present on OCW at two United Nations-affiliated conferences this fall – cites as "external validation" for the project. And according to Wilson, there are many more markers of success for OpenCourseWare that Tufts looks forward to meeting.

"It will be all of them together that let us know this is useful out there in the world and we're doing the right thing."


Profile by Georgiana Cohen, with additional content by Bruce Morgan. Illustrations by Alyssia Newton.

This story originally ran on Oct. 24, 2005