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Tim Cowlishaw [opinions]

A free education: Open-Of-Course [education] [open-of-course]

Attempts to educate and evangelise to people about the benefits of free software are often frustrasted by the common perception that free software is made 'by geeks, for geeks' and is therefore of limited interest to a less 'technical' audience.

The Free Culture movement, Wikipedia, and, to a certain extent the Creative Commons (along with applications such as flickr that integrate their licenses) have helped dispel this myth, applying the principles of freedom that originated in Free Software to a wider variety of content, beginning an influx of these values into a wider cross-section of society. Open-Of-Course is another project that attempts to do the same thing, this time providing a repository for freely licensed and collaboratively produced learning materials for a variety of disciplines.

Unlike initiatives such as MIT's OpenCourseWare project, Open-Of-Course intends to provide teaching and information for practical subjects and activities, rather than theoretical and academic disciplines. By providing courses in diverse, yet immediately relevant disciplines, Open-Of-Course showcases the possibilities that free licensing offers for education and dissemination of knowledge at a grass-roots level.

While it is true that OOC's catalogue predominantly features computer related courses, other areas of study are beginning to be included in their offering. The first non-technical subjects to appear are various language courses - a natural candidate for such a project given that language is free by definition. However, the OOC platform (built upon the free course management system Moodle) can accommodate learning material for any subject with ease, and the scope of the site's course catalogue is limited only by the number and diversity of it's contributors. In addition, the Moodle platform provides more than just a repository for documentation - Its social and discussion features foster a genuine community based around the participants on a course.

This sort of initiative provides a fantastic opportunity to espouse the benefits that the principles of free software provide to a far greater community than many other free culture or free software projects. The practical emphasis of the site's courses is fundamentally inclusive, to an extent that similar sites offering specialist or advanced-level knowledge cannot be. Being multilingual, Open-Of-Course ensures that language need not be a barrier to participation. In addition, the social features of the site are pivotal to its accessibility - the fact that users of the site can create new courses themselves ensures that the subject matter offered tracks the interests of those using the site.

Like Wikipedia, before it, OOC treats the transfer of knowledge as an open exchange of ideas which evolve and expand as a result of this exchange, rather than simply as the distribution of immutable 'works'. By harnessing the power of the community that develops around the site's users in order to develop and build upon a catalogue of interesting and relevant material, Open-Of-Course admirably showcases the benefits of free licensing for all.

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