Tom's Two Cents

Free Samples – USU OpenCourseWare is a Virtual Visitor’s Center: Part 2

Free Samples – USU OpenCourseWare is a Virtual Visitor’s Center: Part 2

David Wiley left a comment on my last post about USU OpenCourseWare sustainability that sparked a new post.

David’s comment:

I think the problem of the moment is that every person on campus is asking, with regard to their specific program, “how do you justify NOT paying for it?” And yet things are being cut left and right. In a climate where serious conversations are being had about laying off faculty, I worry that you can’t argue for a program on any merits other than “in addition to be useful, it brings in additional dollars.” But I’d love to be wrong.

My reply:

… I don’t want to stray too far from the context of my letter, which was directed at a marketing and PR committee. My point is that we have not made a strong enough case to these people. Marketing a university costs money, and the return on this investment is measured in eyeballs, visitors, or hits — not dollars. An established OpenCourseWare like USU OCW should be a marketing line item because it provides more marketing bang for every buck. Smart organizations like Talis have figured this out and are now using their marketing budgets to fund interesting projects that will enhance their reputation ( I realize this is all stuff you know, but I’m just putting it out there for others.


I think saying that OpenCourseWare needs to “bring in additional dollars” is looking at the problem too narrowly. Yes, every OCW needs to generate value, and that value must be recognized by the institutions decision-makers. I am not against OCWs earning money linking to paid courses, but I think USU OCW has something else to offer.

As I studied in the Utah State University library today I noticed several groups of students being taken on a tour of the campus, 8 students at a time. Several of the students appeared to be foreign students. How did these students decide to attend Utah State University? More importantly, how will students find and choose a university in the future (assuming universities are not irrelevant at that point)?

I am not saying Utah State University should replace its guided campus tours with OpenCourseWare; I am only suggesting that USU OpenCourseWare has incredible value as a sort of Virtual Visitor’s Center. USU OCW is essentially a “student magnet” — a site that attracts learners from near and far and showcases some of the great courses USU has to offer. It’s like the free samples at Sam’s Club.

Free samples

I believe USU OCW is more useful than a traditional advertisement because it draws the right target group: learners! USU OCW allows them a sample of some great course content available at Utah State University. And just like the free samples they give away at your local membership warehouse, it gets people interested. Of course when it comes to course content in an OpenCourseWare, you can give away all the samples you want and you haven’t lost anything. Students will still have to pay for the degree.

This is valuable stuff. How valuable? To put things into perspective I will compare it to something much less useful: a Google Ad. Google Ads for popular university keywords range from 76 cents to $1.80. At a conservative 76 cents per click, an ad campaign for a university would cost $380,000 for 500,000 clicks. At its peak, USU OCW had an annual operating cost of $120,000 and had over 550,000 visits last year. That’s 1.5 million clicks from people interested in learning something. If you are a marketing committee, that’s worth something.

A well-developed OpenCourseWare site is valuable in so many ways. Please understand that by focusing on the marketing potential of OCW I do not mean to reduce it to merely a marketing tool. My point is that something doesn’t have to turn a profit to be sustainable. It can “earn its keep” in other ways — like marketing.

So what is your school doing with its marketing dollars? Why not create a virtual visitor’s center with OpenCourseWare? Why not give out “free samples” to thousands of prospective students? They will still come to you for the credentials. And there will be more of them.

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