Well before last semester’s course evaluations rolled in, Yale history professor John Merriman had already received a rave review. In early October, he opened an email that had been sent from the outskirts of Lahore, Pakistan: “You would be delighted to learn that at 5:00 pm, June 11, 2011, the first lecture of your Yale Open course ‘European Civilization 1648-1948’ was shown to the least privileged, but clearly the most motivated, students from suburban Lahore. [The students] could have never dreamt of acquiring Yale education but now they are learning about Enlightenment, French Revolution, etc.”
Since Open Yale Courses began in 2006, Yale has released 994 individual class sessions to the online world and OYC has become one of the most frequently visited Yale websites, project director and art history professor Diana Kleiner said in an interview last fall.
Although the program serves as a marketing tool for the University, Yale does not fund OYC. While online course programs at both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford are financially supported — at least in part — by their respective administrations, Kleiner said the initiative at Yale has survived on three consecutive grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation that together total $4 million. The most recent grant, which lasts through the end of this year, will be the last that OYC receives from the foundation. The program has yet to find long-term funding, given that the Hewlett grant supports startups, rather than programs in perpetuity, Kleiner said.
Kathy Schoonmaker, director of business operations for the Provost’s Office, said that the administration has refrained from providing funding previously because Kleiner had already secured grants independently. Kleiner said she plans to continue conversations with administrators about the potential for University funding this year.
“It has always been that we have to find a way to sustain this over time,” Kleiner said. “Will the University be willing to support this in some way? I would hope that it will.”
OYC most recently announced a plan to sell printed books modeled after the online programs — otherwise offered for free — this spring, but with the initiative fast approaching the end of its final grant, the program is determining how to find long-term funding that will allow it to continue in competition with other online initiatives. University President Richard Levin said the program is “not going to stop,” but added that its format may change.
LAUNCH AND RELAUNCH
Inside the Yale Broadcast & Media Center at 135 College St., Senior Producer and Post Production Manager Doug Forbush scrolls through recently edited video clips from OYC lectures. One of two technicians that OYC pays for the video editing, Forbush said he cleans up the video feed that is brought back to the studio. Editing video for a course requires anywhere from half a day to an entire month, he said.
For Yale, each course costs between $30,000 and $45,000 to produce, with most of the money going toward videography. At MIT — whose online program, OpenCourseWare, is partially funded by the university’s provost — each course that has video lectures can cost, in total, up to $30,000, a price tag that covers site maintenance and intellectual property rights.
“I think this is a real statement about the value that the provost sees internally to MIT for having done OpenCourseWare,” Stephen Carson, MIT’s external affairs director, said.
The MIT provost’s office provides a $1.3 million budget annually. The other half of the program’s funding comes from a combination of donors, advertising links and grants.
Since 2010, OYC has been funded largely by its third and final grant from the Hewlett Foundation that was intended to last for two years. As the program seeks to replace that funding, officials are exploring new options. Last December a “donate” button was added to the OYC website. Levin said he is also interested in exploring the potential of offering the courses for credit — as he said Yale Summer Session piloted last summer — before creating additional free programming.
“It’s hugely expensive, and we were fortunate to get outside support for it,” Levin said. “Most people who do this are generating revenue somehow from the online education. We were not generating revenue, but we wanted to demonstrate the high quality of what we could put out there.”
Kleiner attributes OYC’s lack of administrative funding in part to the fact that the University still views OYC as an experiment, especially given that Yale already funded a previously unsuccessful online endeavor.
In 2001, Kleiner began a collaborative effort with Stanford and Oxford called the Alliance for Lifelong Learning, or AllLearn. Each of the three universities offered content exclusive to the web. The Yale administration provided funding for the experiment, which also charged viewers a small fee for its material. AllLearn charges ranged from $99 to $300 per course, depending on the durations of the tutorials.
Although Yale initially marketed AllLearn to alumni and later the general public, there was not enough interest to support the program. “We didn’t go into it to make money,” Kleiner said, “We went into it to see if we could be self-sustaining.” But when the former program never reached that level, she said, the University closed the initiative in 2006.
GOING TO PRESS
Before launching a second attempt at reaching a broad online audience, Kleiner said she needed to evaluate the missteps of AllLearn’s content and brainstorm what kind of model going forward would deserve external or University funding. She did not want to return to charging viewers for the material.
While Yale was busy with AllLearn, MIT had embarked on an Internet project of its own. Its intention, according to Carson, is to publish as much material from as many courses as possible, including syllabi and practice problems with answers.
After MIT’s success in attracting both prospective students and viewers across a wide age range, Kleiner decided to relaunch an online learning initiative at Yale, Open Yale Courses.
“I think all of us are watching each other. I think every one of these projects is very distinctive to every university, its own culture,” Kleiner said, “but I think we definitely pay attention to what each other is doing.”
Other schools have looked to decrease the gap between the classroom experience and the online experience, but OYC’s most recent financial support has steered its content from the online format to print. Three books, based on transcripts of the online courses, will be published this spring, followed by another four next fall.
Just as Kleiner’s decision to begin OYC started as an experiment, so too are the books. Funded by the Yale University Press, Kleiner said that the books are one potential source of increasing both revenue and audience. Still, she acknowledges that it is unlikely that the collaboration will be substantially profitable, since most of the proceeds will go to the Yale University Press, with a small amount going toward OYC.
Kleiner believes that there will be an audience interested in the print versions but added that some individuals may be deterred from purchasing the books because the transcripts are already available for free on the web.
As OYC continues to move toward a more sustainable model, levin did express interest in creating interactive material that supports the recorded lectures, including online discussion forums and problem sets.
Yale’s previous partner in the AllLearn project, Stanford, has already taken this approach. Every week last semester, approximately 50,000 people learned about artificial intelligence from Stanford instructors and Google researchers Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig. Apart from a short introductory lecture, students rarely saw their professors. Instead, they watched as pens glided across the screen and heard the instructors’ voices explaining the science behind backgammon or the probability of the Monty Hall problem, a puzzle based on the American game show “Let’s Make a Deal.”
In an attempt to replicate the twice-weekly AI class held at Stanford for a global audience, the two professors spent 10 to 15 hours a week recording brief video segments — about one or two minutes long — for the online course. Stanford offered a certificate of achievement for course completion.
Levin too expressed interest in providing ways to recognize completion of the courses, such as offering certificates or course credits. He added that granting credit for Yale’s courses have the potential of being self-financing.
The success of the interactive Stanford program, as indicated by the surprisingly large enrollment and the “positive feedback” that Norvig said he received, was enabled by the university’s support.
“We told the university this is what we’re going to do, and mostly they were supportive,” Norvig said. “Some universities are a multi-headed beast and some of those heads were worried that we don’t do things like this.”
While Thrun and Norvig’s artificial intelligence course has attracted far more interest than either professor anticipated, their goals for the future include creating an even more classroom-like feel through a Stanford-sponsored discussion forum. They are also hoping to test how widely applicable their interactive platform is in other fields of study.
Kleiner says that OYC is testing out “new approaches” to its online content, but she declined to comment further on specifics.
Thirty-five courses are currently offered through OYC.
Correction: Jan. 25
A previous version of this article misstated the amount of external funding that Yale has received from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The program has received 3 consecutive grants since 2006 that together total $4 million.