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ND course material put online

Eileen Duffy | Thursday, September 28, 2006

Notre Dame has joined a group of universities from around the world offering materials for some of their courses free of charge via the Internet.

At the invitation of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Notre Dame signed on to the OpenCourseWare Consortium, launching its own OpenCourseWare Web site Sept. 20. The site currently features materials for only eight courses, but the University plans to eventually post materials for 30 courses during the year-long pilot program.

While MIT ultimately intends to offer materials for all of its 1,000-plus courses, other American universities are featuring the courses for which they are best known. For Johns Hopkins, that means medical school courses; for Harvard, law school courses; and for Notre Dame, courses on something the Consortium feels Notre Dame does best.

“MIT and the other members of the consortium found Notre Dame’s focus on courses having to do with the ‘human condition,’ in the broad sense, very appealing, and a very valuable addition to the overall OpenCourseWare movement,” said Alexander Hahn, director of the Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning. The Kaneb Center is responsible for overseeing Notre Dame’s OpenCourseWare project.

Classes like “Terrorism, Peace and Other Inconsistencies,” “Faith and the African-American Experience” and “Introduction to Philosophy” are among the eight for which materials are available online.

Because accessing course materials online requires no registration, the number of people using the Web site is unknown. The project uses a hit counter to measure the number of daily visitors to the Web site, but Hahn said that figure was unavailable due to the newness of the site.

Funded by a $233,000 grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Notre Dame’s OpenCourseWare project is targeted toward people both outside and inside the University community.

“What made me immediately positive toward this opportunity was the fact that Notre Dame and certainly its founding order [the Congregation of Holy Cross] are very much mission-oriented,” Hahn said. “… So, what this is … is an electronic academic expression of what Notre Dame is about at its core.”

Holy Cross missions throughout the world – like high schools from Bangladesh to Ghana to Chile – might also benefit from these materials, Hahn said. He also said the program is discussing translation possibilities with Chair of Romance Languages and Literatures Ted Cachey and Chair of East Asian Languages and Literatures Lionel Jensen.

“I would personally love to have my syllabus available, for example, in Arabic,” said professor Asma Asfaruddin, whose “Islamic Societies of the Middle East and North Africa” materials are featured online. “I think that would be a great idea – I’d love to get feedback from people in the Middle East.”

Within Notre Dame’s boundaries, OpenCourseWare potentially benefits students selecting their courses and even their careers. The Web site might also connect faculty in a new way, Hahn said.

“Imagine the possibilities … there might be a colleague in another college whose course materials you find compelling,” Hahn said. “That may stimulate the development of interdisciplinary courses.”

OpenCourseWare differs from online courses, for which a student pays to learn, keep contact with the professor and earn college credit. Rather, the movement presents “complete, but static presentations of course materials,” Hahn said.

The Web site’s presentation of the featured courses is indeed detailed, complete with syllabi, calendars, downloadable PowerPoint presentations and quizzes. Soon to come are videotaped lectures, which Hahn said the University is currently filming. Visual images like streaming video or even photographic stills, Hahn said, make studying OpenCourseWare a “richer experience.”

Hahn said the faculty has been very generous in its time and energy commitment, but a videotaped lecture would no doubt decrease a professor’s planning time – extra time which “quite frankly, a lot of professors don’t have,” according to philosophy professor Bill Ramsey, whose “Introduction to Philosophy” course materials are online.

“It would save time and effort involved in going back and revising lectures, which is what I had to do,” Asfaruddin said. “That’s a viable alternative, I think. And I think a lot of professors may actually choose that option.”

Also saving the professors time are Course Production Assistants [CPAs], undergraduate and graduate students who compile lectures and collate information before placing it online. Asfaruddin called hers, senior David Poell, “indispensable.”

What remains in question is whether the program is indispensable to the University – for, like almost all academic endeavors, there are costs associated with the OpenCourseWare project. Still, Hahn says he plans to write another letter to the Hewletts.

“We certainly envision another application to the Hewlett Foundation when this one is over a year from now,” he said. “…I think this is just a very worthwhile effort that Notre Dame is involved in here.

“This is, in my view, completely consonant to what Notre Dame, at its best, is all about.”