Utah State OpenCourseWare, lowriders, and system design

Utah State University has announced the closure of its OpenCourseWare initiative due to budget woes. I call nonsense (or BS). Apparently OCW needed $120,000 per year. Given the size of Utah State University, I’m going to guess they have an annual operating budget somewhere in the range of $300-400 million. This is not a budget shortfall – this is a commitment shortfall. 120K is a fraction of a fraction in light of the larger university budget.

This illustrates my concern about centrally organized open educational initiatives – they have a single point of failure: funding. There is a solution. It’s called systematization.

Let’s consider lowriders (the cars/trucks, not the jeans). I’m not into lowriders. This is mainly due to my general lack of being cool. But it is also partly due to how people react to after market modifications. When I buy a new vehicle, I like things to be fairly painless. Air conditioning? Yes. Power windows? Yes. (can you even get new cars without those options?). Satellite radio? Yes. However, if the salesperson stated it would take a few weeks to months to get specific features like GPS, I would likely pass. Why? Because certain options are not really options. They are cast as additional features, but in reality, we expect them as part of our vehicles. These options have been systematized into the development of the vehicle.

Lowriders, on the other hand, are true after market vehicles. Expensive customization is the general rule here. Which means if you didn’t buy your vehicle as a lowrider, there’s a very slim chance you’ll get it customized. A small fraction of society will pay for this extra work.

What does this have to do with Utah State?

Everything. The OER and OCW movement(s) are fundamentally flawed in where they assign openness. Openness is being treated as separate from curriculum development and delivery. Openness is viewed as an after market feature. And most universities aren’t too eager to pay for the extras.

Openness should be built into the process of curriculum design – it should be systematized just like so-called options of air conditioning and power windows in vehicles. As long as openness is separated from the rest of education, it will be seen as a cost-cutting option. Which is really rather silly. The 0.034% savings to Utah’s budget this year reveals the precarious position open education holds when treated as an optional add on…

11 Responses to “Utah State OpenCourseWare, lowriders, and system design”

  1. Curt Madison says:

    I agree that the OCW movement as an add-on option misses the point. Unless it becomes a strategy to accomplish centrally held goals then it will always suffer. The general history of Distance Education is an example. As an auxiliary to the university, distance education was for stigmatized populations and always deemed second class. So to build distance education into eLearning, we need to force a strategy of goal alignment. Same with Openness in all useful forms.

    I’ll have another comment when you ruminate on the obvious conflict of mainstreaming a disruptive innovation.

  2. Gerry says:


    Sees to me that many higher ed environments put more credence to business development than education, and the business development people still believe that the little bit of content that they have to sell will attract students and make them tons of money.

  3. [...] 15, 2009 · Leave a Comment George Siemens has a new post giving commentary on the shutdown of Utah State University OpenCourseWare (reported by OEN). [...]

  4. [...] George has written a thoughtful post about issues with OCW 1.0 projects titled Utah State OpenCourseWare, lowriders, and system design. [...]

  5. Tom Caswell says:

    I am a USU PhD student and former employee of the center that ran USU OCW. Your assessment of openness as an aftermarket add-on is spot on, and in this regard I don’t think Utah State University is very different from most institutions implementing the various flavors of Open Education. The tragedy in this case is that while all administrators approached agreed USU OCW was worthwhile, no one was willing to adopt the orphan.

    I am concerned that we are not simply talking about putting the project on hold. It is my understanding that the servers will go dark sometime next month.

    FWIW, USU has an authorized base budget of 226,327,800 for 2009-10 (http://www.usu.edu/budget/documents/legislature/2009/budget%20summary_fy2009%20leg.pdf), so you were very close. We are talking about .053% of the base budget. As you can imagine, the costs to simply keep the servers running would be much less.

    • gsiemens says:

      Hi Tom -thanks for your comment…and the update on USU budget. You’re right in stating that USU is not very different from other initiatives in OCW. I’m sure we’ll see more instances of universities discontinuing these projects because funds aren’t available (though it really is a commitment issue). If we can get past special funding and move to integrated/systematized approach to open education, we’d be able to sidestep the uneven funding flow.

  6. Lanny Arvan says:

    I am teaching a course right now using Blogger and other Google tools where the students have set up their own blogs, either on Blogger or WordPress. When we need to communicate privately, rarely but it does happen, we use the Campus LMS for that. The course is called, “Designing for Effective Change.” Do a google search on that and the course site will come up as the first hit with some of the student blogs also on that page.

    There is a fundamental issue with this approach that has to be addressed squarely in doing this sort of thing at scale. My course has encountered a variety of intellectual stumbling blocks about which the students get frustrated, as do I. I’ve encouraged the students to express their frustration out in the open online, but I’ve done that because it fits in with the subject matter of the course. We are, in essence, living through the theme of the course. A course with a different subject matter might find public airing about course stumbling blocks antagonistic to the goals of the course. But then more of the course is apt to get moved inside the LMS. How much? I don’t know, but certainly the instructor has to be comfortable with the solution. That goes to the next point.

    There is some real work in setting up the logistics for a course like this. That increases if you use both an open site and an LMS site. Perhaps a campus hosted solution to both can make it all work smoothly, but I have my doubts. Further many places are now going to outsource LMS hosting as an economy move. Those places would seem to be out of luck for such an integrated solution.

  7. Derek says:

    This is probably inevitable. Even sort of enlightened institutions get hit sometime later with budget pressures and things just close up.
    But I have two questions:
    1. The stuff on the servers. Can’t it just be bundled up and passed to another repository?
    2. Why is this not done anyway? Create the stuff, upload to several places in case one goes bust.
    “Centrally organized OCW” may be an oxymoron. They only progress as long as two things happen: there is $$ and someone with passion and vision is there. Passion and vision often are not enough.
    I hope the guys from the USUOCW are OK and able to move on, and contribute elsewhere.

  8. Mary says:

    Perhaps the loss of David Wiley to BYU has a direct correlation to the loss of the center. Did the center loose its champion? If so, begs he question, why was the philosophy more entrenched in the university? Is this really a political not a budget question?

  9. [...] integration of openness – i.e. openness is part of the curriculum development process, not as an after market add on.” However, this would appear to be an appeal for transparency in the development process and [...]

  10. Jorge Aldana says:

    I would like to know if it is possible for you to authorize the spanish translation of this article.