Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities are Opening Up Access to Their Courses

Published January 01, 2011

Taylor Walsh

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Over the past decade, top universities have begun to experiment with online courseware, leveraging one of their core assets—the undergraduate course—to reach out to new constituencies of learners. Ithaka S+R embarked on a project intended to chronicle the development of several key initiatives in this space, in an effort to provide senior academic leadership with actionable, strategic intelligence around activity in this emerging field.


Two years of research has resulted in a scholarly monograph, Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities Are Opening Up Access to Their Courses, published by Princeton University Press and available through Amazon and other book sellers. 


The research and analysis compiled in Unlocking the Gates captures some of the lessons learned in this young and evolving field. Drawing on specific examples from case studies of leading courseware initiatives—now-defunct for-profit initiatives like AllLearn and Fathom.com; free and open projects like MIT’s pioneering OpenCourseWare, Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative, Open Yale Courses, and webcast.berkeley; and the expansive NPTEL project by the Indian Institutes of Technology—this book provides insight into a number of relevant strategic questions, including


  • In a digital age, how can universities distinguish themselves in competition for reputation, students, and faculty? 
  • How will these projects continue to sustain themselves as they mature beyond the experimental phase? 
  • Can higher education institutions maintain the campus-based business model that has sustained them for centuries, while also leveraging new technology to expand access to the knowledge they produce? 
  • And, faced with fiscal uncertainty and the need to increase access to higher education while maintaining quality, could these projects eventually have more transformative applications than we are seeing at present?


Unlocking the Gates was written by former Ithaka S+R analyst Taylor Walsh, with a foreword by William G. Bowen.  A slightly modified, text-only version of the manuscript is available for download. 

 Editorial in the Mint: “Education beyond brick and mortar


 Editorial in Forbes: "Higher Education in the Digital Age"


"New technologies and budget austerity have increased the urgency to experiment with online learning in higher education, both on campus and distance learning. It is extremely timely that Taylor Walsh presents and analyzes case studies of selective universities' attempts to develop online courseware. There is very much to be learned about business models, the hopes and fears of faculty and administrators, and the organizational structures and cultures of the universities involved from these clearly written and always provocative studies of Yale, MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Berkeley, Columbia, and a program in India. Unlocking the Gates will be essential reading for those interested in online learning, indeed for those thinking about the evolution of higher education in the United States and globally."

— Henry Bienen, president emeritus, Northwestern University

"This book tells an interesting and important story. The research is fabulous and probing, and the storyline is wonderfully focused on leadership and the decisions it makes in circumstances that are constantly evolving and uncertain."

— Daniel Greenstein, vice provost for academic planning, programs, and coordination, University of California

"Unlocking the Gates tells the story of how a number of selective universities are venturing into the world of online education. Taylor Walsh explores the motivations, successes and failures, and prospects of these projects, asking whether they are worthy in their own right and whether they are the right moves for these universities."
—Saul Fisher, associate provost, Hunter College, City University of New York

Download Monograph (1.47 MB)

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