A glimpse into classrooms

Ever wondered how many courses at the University of Saskatchewan deal in some way with Spanish history, or calculus, or sustainability? Now, thanks to an innovative website that congregates course details, finding out is just a mouse click away. (The answer to the sustainability question is 21 courses offered in eight different colleges and schools.)

Set up as a gateway to the more than 4,000 courses on offer, the Open Courseware website makes it easy for anyone to get a glimpse into what will be taught by making public all course descriptions, syllabi and even course content on one site. "The idea is to be more transparent about what we do in our classrooms by providing an organized view that is easy to navigate," said Jim Greer, director of the University Learning Centre (ULC), one of the partner units in the Open Courseware project.

Developed along with Student and Enrolment Services Division and Information and Communications Technology, Open Courseware has been on many people's wish list for some time, said Stephanie Frost, the ULC co-ordinator of online support. The vision was to provide one place for all course syllabi and materials while still allowing professors and instructors the ability to "put a wall through it to separate things that are only for students from things that are public, and that saves them from having to maintain two different websites," she explained.

Frost said the website (ocw. usask.ca) draws course descriptions from the university's online course catalogue and provides a folder for any additional materials an instructor wants to make public. Greer said those materials are the intellectual property of the instructor "but it's intellectual property the university is encouraging them to share."

Work on adapting the existing BBLearn Blackboard system to create Open Courseware was well underway when University Council earlier this year amended the academic course policy, confirming that course syllabi are public documents. Open Courseware has been in what Greer described as "quiet release mode" for some time but with the policy amendment, the default setting for all syllabi was changed to make them public.

In addition to course descriptions, syllabi and other content, the Open Courseware developers co-ordinated with the University Library to include subject- and course-specific materials, said Frost. This allows users of the site to link from a particular course to relevant library resources.

"I think what we've done is pretty unique," she continued. "I haven't seen any sites at other universities quite as developed as ours, and we did it without a big expense by adapting the system we were already using."

Both Frost and Greer agree Open Courseware, with its easy-to-use browse and search functions, will be a boon for students—both current and prospective—as they consider what courses they might want to take.

"I'm excited about Open Courseware because it creates ‘stumble upon' opportunities for students looking for things that interest them," said Frost, "and it will certainly help people in the community who may be interested in finding out more about what happens in a university class, things they wouldn't otherwise know until they enrolled."

Greer said work will continue on Open Courseware as awareness of the site grows. Templates for syllabi and guidelines for posting content that were developed over the past year will continue to be promoted with instructors, and he wants to explore the possibility of adding additional search tags beyond those already in the course descriptions.

"The ability to search through all of our courses is a very valuable resource," he said. "It's good to see the U of S leading the country in this innovative approach to openness."

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