Monday, June 29, 2009

Let's rethink OpenCourseWare

You can't knock down the gates around higher education by putting up virtual borders instead.

If you read this blog with any regularity, you know that I'm on the open source movement like Daniel Tosh on videos of people puking.

Which is why I engage with MIT's OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiative as if I were trying to embody the very definition of insanity itself. This time, I've gotten my dander up over the promise and disappointment of an awesomely titled course, Research Topics in Architecture: Citizen-Centered Design of Open Governance Systems. Here's the description from the course's syllabus:

Imagine if networked computers and other devices could unleash full democratic real-time participation in official decisions by all stakeholders. To date, member-led debate and decision-making has always been subject to physical limits in space, time and numbers of participants. Current technologies and business practices can allow architects and planners to break through the traditional constraints to member involvement in the agoras of our public and private institutions. The implications for corporate transparency and accountability, as well as for more responsive government are provocative.

In this seminar, students will design and perfect a digital environment to house the activities of large-scale organizations of people making bottom-up decisions, such as with citizen-government affairs, voting corporate shareholders or voting members of global non-profits and labor unions. A working Open Source prototype created last semester will be used as the starting point, featuring collaborative filtering and electronic agent technology pioneered at the Media Lab. This course focuses on development of online spaces as part of an interdependent human environment, including physical architectures, mapped work processes and social/political dimensions.

Perfect, right? And not only that, but I keep going back to the noble origins of OCW and wanting the tool to live up to its promise. As the site proclaims,
In 1999, MIT Faculty considered how to use the Internet in pursuit of MIT's mission—to advance knowledge and educate students—and in 2000 proposed OCW. MIT published the first proof-of-concept site in 2002, containing 50 courses. By November 2007, MIT completed the initial publication of virtually the entire curriculum, over 1,800 courses in 33 academic disciplines. Going forward, the OCW team is updating existing courses and adding new content and services to the site.

It's an expensive--according to the site, it costs between $10,000 and $15,000 to upload materials from a single course--but laudable effort, ideally suited to highly resourceful learners looking for ways to supplement their formal or informal learning.

Again and again I return to OCW. Again and again I'm disappointed by how hostile OCW materials are to even the most dedicated, passionate learner. The materials are easy to download and unzip but difficult to unpack: They're so dense, and so decontextualized in their current format, that they're nearly nonsensical.

The architecture course is a case in point. While I'd be hard-pressed to find a more perfect class for the likes of me, the materials, though organized according to the course schedule and packaged with lecture notes, handouts, and supplemental readings, are simply too much to make head or tail of. Here, for example, are the class notes from week 1, "slashdot as example":

Class Notes
  1. - Karma – six levels – terrible, bad, neutral, positive, good, excellent
  2. Self-Organizing
  3. Fiction (Jeremy) – similar point system
  4. Pathfinder (Stylianos)
  5. Shock Experiment – Anonymity
  6. Slackdot – takes time to penetrate – no ‘design’ (‘blurb’ upon ‘blurb’)
  7. Legibility should be more important
  8. Hard to read – squint eyes
  9. Only get ‘tip of the iceberg’
  10. Graphic way of searching for info – (starry night)
  11. The Brain EKP – Enterprise Knowledge Platform
  12. Spider Map – Irish PM interface – drag and drop
  13. How things get ‘about the iceberg’ – organized on screen – very different
  14. Slashdot – every user is not equal – ‘superusers’ have more input – antidemocratic
  15. Mediation – 3rd party neutral – resolution among themselves.
  16. Arbitration – 3rd party neutral – arbitrator rules based on evidence.
  17. EBay- used same technology to resolve dispute
  18. High reputation, good feedback – typically did nothing wrong – past performance
  19. Filters – like minded people (ie ACLU) or only hi-karma people
  20. Maybe have user-defined (voted for things you also want)
  21. To what extent are user comments and actions transparent?
  22. Is real identity necessary?

Next Week:

How to preserve minority rights – mediation – therapeutic circles!

Debate Notes:
What do you mean by project based experience?
Really there is 2 proposals – eliminate GRE, use project-based evaluation
Other criteria still valid.

I'm sure this makes perfect sense to the student who was able to sit in on that week's lecture, but it's all but useless without that guidance. Though I'm sure the readings and other assignments clarify nicely, it's up to me to locate the texts, read them alone, and figure out the link to the key ideas of the course. This is only slightly better, and perhaps a good deal more time-consuming, than if I were to simply email the instructor with a request for reading recommendations.

The resources aren't completely useless, of course; the reading list saves me the time and energy of having to locate, contact, and wait to hear back from the instructor. I imagine, too, that OCW is an invaluable resource for higher ed faculty and administrators as they approach course planning. Used right, this kind of resource could help us make enormous strides toward leveling the higher education playing field.

But I'm not sure what using it right might look like. Should all universities compare their course offerings and reading materials to that offered by MIT faculty? Should all students pick an accompanying OCW course to complement their chosen field of study? Or should we ignore the content and emulate the approach: Making all course materials at all universities available to anybody who wants to access them?

Perhaps, as a colleague pointed out, it's not fair to use a course from 2002 as proof of OCW's failings. After all, as she explained, 2002 was too early to judge anything by today's criteria: "In 2002," she said, "the New York Times was still charging for content."

Fair enough. But more recent courses appear similarly information-dense and context-sparse. All I'm saying (and I've said it before, here on this blog) is that while the impetus behind OCW is grand and noble, it doesn't seem like anybody's getting their $10,000 to $15,000 worth. It seems much more valuable--not to mention cheaper and more readily accessible--to capture one or two key lectures per semester, surround those lectures with related readings designed by the lecturer for the OCW context, and link learners to a cluster of resources available through other open educational resources, online networks, and offline texts. This seems much more closely aligned to the spirit of the open educational movement, an effort that hopes to break down archaic and arbitrary geological, achievement-oriented, and class-defined gaps in participation.

Okay, now I'm just repeating myself.


Anonymous said...

These are excellent suggestions, some of which have already been taken up by OCW producers around the world. For example, those of us who use eduCommons, a software platform designed for OCW publication, have the option of using the OER Recommender, which posts related Open resources on the right-hand side of an OCW resource. We're always on the lookout for better ways to present different types of teaching.

We're also always on the lookout for best practices in the use of OCW, so we'd love to see a list of techniques that work for you when you manage to successfully navigate a course.

Glad you're using OCW, despite the frustrations! As your friend pointed out, we're learning too.

opencontent said...


If you look around you'll notice a new kind of OCW becoming available. The "OCW 1.0" model was to digitize notes from class and post these online. The newer, let's say "OCW 2.0" model, is to take courses that were originally developed as content complete online courses, meant for online delivery, and open these. I think you'll find the experience of frustration and disappointment just disappears with these OCWs. Check out and for examples.

Steve Foerster said...

I've noticed the same thing, and from this have always thought that for most OCW projects, independent students are not the target, instructors and other course designers are.

Jenna McWilliams said...

All of the above is fantastic advice. I'm really looking forward to exploring the materials identified above. (I took a quick look at the byu opencourseware page and it looks much more directed and focused, though it does appear to have a limited number of courses--hey, you can't have everything, right?)

Jared Stein said...

Re. @opencontent's comment, this "OCW 2.0 model" has been exemplified by projects like UK Open U's OpenLearn project for a number of years now.

And yet quality and usability of content is not the only thing that makes OpenLearn my favorite OCW project. They've done some cool stuff with integrative, community-building tools, and robust opportunities for reuse/remix.

Jenna McWilliams said...

gosh, this is fantastic stuff! Are the above projects run by administrators, or do they support educators uploading their own material?

Gordon Lockhart said...

Yes "OCW1" varies tremendously in quality ranging from mere syllabus listings to quite superlative contributions. (I know having surveyed hundreds of OCW items for iBerry's Open Courseware Directory!) Of course quality is also relative to the learner and courseware that's typically a byproduct of a formal university course aimed at a specific group of students can never be suitable for all types of online learners. Connexions and Carnegie Mellon's Open Learning Initiative are other good examples that take "OCW2" so far but on the whole these initiatives do not "link learners to a cluster of resources available through other open educational resources, online networks ..." They also do not attempt to pool resources (eg by supporting 1 or 2 really viable forums for subject-based discussion rather than several that risk running out of steam). We have recently started an OCW2 project at iBerry that attempts to link together recommended OCW1 under subject headings along with links to other resources such as learner support. Comments and assistance are welcome!


All content on this blog has been relocated to my new website, making edible playdough is hegemonic. Please visit and update your bookmarks!