Open educational resources are widely used in schools and universities and increasing numbers of teachers are sharing lectures, lessons and other material. It's still far from mainstream but the movement is gaining momentum. I've written several times about how innovative educational initiatives such as Peer 2 Peer University and University of the People have started offering free peer learning courses using open educational resources. The problem there is that they have not so far been able to offer university credits for these courses, only the satisfaction of having partoicipated and learnt a lot (not a bad result either of course).
However, according to an article in Times Higher Education ("OER university" to cut cost of degree) a group of universities known as the OER Foundation (University of Southern Queensland in Australia, Athabasca University in Canada and Otago Polytechnic in New Zealand) are planning to offer courses using free online resources at up to 90% of the cost of a regular campus course. Students who complete the coursework will be assessed and awarded academic credits.
According to Wayne Mackintosh, director of the Open Education Resource Foundation:
"Throughout most Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, the costs of education have been increasing in excess of the inflation index. What we're aiming to do is provide alternatives...the opportunity to get the same quality of education for significantly lower cost."
Why would a university that charges significant fees for its courses want to give them away for almost nothing? Firstly, those who already distribute their material for free, such as MIT and Open University, have enhanced their global reputation, improved the quality of their course material and undoubtedly recruited a considerable number of students (see Open Learn Research Report, Open University 2009). Secondly, it makes sense to let the public view the material that has been produced with, in most cases, public money. Thirdly the availability of free content is hardly a threat to a "regular" campus education since the value lies in the context not the content. Without the context provided by the teachers the content has little value.
Offering OER-based university education as proposed here offers an excellent complement to the traditional system. Not everyone has the time and resources to devote 3-4 years to full-time higher education. This method gives so many people who would never even have considered higher education the opportunity to study and gain qualifications. Two parallell university systems who benefit from each other and allow for the wider dissemination of research and academic activity can't be a bad thing.