Should UC Davis courses be available online and free to anyone in the world?
Seven UC Davis faculty members are intrigued enough by this proposition that they are putting course content on iTunes U -- itunes.ucdavis.edu -- the site that debuted last spring, thanks to a UC partnership with Apple Inc. Through ITunes U, users have online video and audio access to educational content from hundreds of top colleges, universities and organizations.
Some faculty do not like the iTunes U concept and have declined the invitation, citing UC Davis student exclusivity and intellectual property issues.
But for many professors, the whole idea of "open courseware," publishing educational materials online for free worldwide use, is so novel that they do not know enough about the issues to make a decision.
"It's new," said Bob Powell, chair of the UC Davis Academic Senate. "iTunes U has not come to the Academic Senate as an issue, and it's not clear how it would come to us. We need to hear what the concerns are and identify how the senate should weigh in."
The concept has been fully embraced by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose faculty took up open courseware as a key educational mission in 2001. Seven years later, MIT has all of its undergraduate and graduate courses on the Web.
MIT reports getting more than 1 million visitors a month to its own university site for open courseware, plus a million more to its courses through affiliated sites that host its work.
Universities like UC Berkeley, Stanford and Yale have been putting portions of their courses out to the public through iTunes U, YouTube and on other Internet sites. Berkeley started putting courses on iTunes U in spring 2006 and now has several hundred from nearly three dozen disciplines available for public consumption. Stanford has hosted nearly 30 courses this year.
At UC Davis, the pioneering professors using UC Davis on iTunes U see benefits for their campus and are motivated by a desire to serve.
The first to put his courses on iTunes, Bernd Hamann, professor of computer science, envisions a great marketing potential for UC Davis faculty, since many students from other universities and countries may be impressed by the lectures when deciding on a university to attend for graduate studies.
Another contributor, plant biology professor John Harada said, "If it is going to make the university a better source of information for other people, then I want to contribute to the efforts to put it out there."
Victoria Cross, a psychology lecturer who is podcasting her "Developmental Psychology" class on iTunes U, said, "At a public institution, it is our social responsibility to widely share the knowledge we have created."
These faculty members buy into a new trend of Internet-powered teaching, perhaps best represented by a group of more than 200 universities and organizations known as the Open CourseWare Consortium.
"The Open CourseWare Consortium is a great initiative, but we are recommending neither for nor against it in our work through the Teaching Resources Center," said Jon Wagner, director of the campus program that assists faculty members in using technology tools.
"Like many other aspects of the networked teaching and research environment, faculty perspectives vary considerably -- sometimes for very good reasons -- so there's much to be gained from supporting different approaches, and high costs for trying to sell any one of them to everybody," Wagner said.
According to UC Davis faculty members -- many of whom are already using the internal Information and Educational Technology system to podcast their lectures -- the idea of putting their courses online to the broader audience through UC Davis on iTunes U or YouTube faces several problems:
UC faculty own the contents of their lectures -- except for the ideas, music, films, graphics, etc. that they borrow from others as content for their courses. Some faculty do not want to give away their own property rights for free.
Moreover, campus contributors are paying attention to the issue of copyright infringement. Putting courses online beyond the sheltered campus podcast system exposes faculty and the campus to scrutiny -- and potential lawsuits.
"Everyone has to follow federal copyright law," said Jan Carmikle, the campus's intellectual property licensing officer. "Copyright law says one must have a license to exercise copyrights to someone else's 'original work of authorship' unless there is an exception spelled out in law."
Some professors believe students will stop coming to class if they can depend on a podcast to pass the course.
Professor Andrew Waterhouse, who holds the John E. Kinsella endowed chair in Food, Nutrition and Health and chairs the Department of Viticulture and Enology, saw "a precipitous decline in grade performance" last spring when he put his course onto the internal campus podcast system.
"I know this is not a controlled experiment, but I think too many students decided to study by listening to the lectures afterward and didn't do a very good job," he said.
Plant scientist Harada, who has podcast two classes half a dozen times in the past few years, said the podcasting has improved the learning experience for his students and that he has seen no attrition.
"The students really like it. In my class, I don't use textbooks, and the class is based on the lectures. It gives my students a chance to go back and get the details," Harada said. "Students still come to office hours, but they can talk about deeper issues."
Faculty members who teach small classes do not want to violate those intimate teaching moments, points out Milmon Harrison, associate professor of African American and African studies.
"There are things that sometimes go on in my classes that are unplanned and often pretty controversial," he said. "Sometimes things get a little heated, and it feels kind of private -- at least between us here on campus. I think I'd need to have some sort of control over what ends up on the Internet in this way."
Faculty dealing with provocative ideas, such as evolution or genetic engineering, fear public reprisal.
"Some of my lectures deal with the evolutionary shift from polygynous mating systems to monogamous ones in humans and other mammals," said Dick Coss, professor of psychology. "These lecture presentations are clearly provocative and include topics inappropriate for open distribution on iTunes."
Jim Millam, a professor in animal science who offers a course in avian physiology with a number of guest speakers, also was concerned about hostile audiences. UC faculty members are particular sensitive to this issue, given the violence this year by animal rights activists against faculty at UC Santa Cruz and UCLA.
"My concern is that these talks were developed in the mindset of being given to a UC Davis undergraduate audience, not in the mindset of being delivered to a general and possibly hostile and possibly uninformed audience," he said.
Millam also pointed out that audio recordings may not make sense to listeners when classes are so dependent on visual information, such as PowerPoint presentations.
To pass his class, Harada said his students must depend not only on his lectures, but on PowerPoint presentations and his notes on the blackboard.
Yet he and psychologist Cross believe enough information can be garnered from audio recordings that putting them online to the public is worthwhile.
"The material I cover has been gleaned from a variety of articles and textbooks and also from faculty I have had the pleasure to know or hear," Cross said. "Any mistakes are all my own."
Clifton B. Parker, Dateline, (530) 752-1932, email@example.com