MIT’s Open Course Ware Is Amazing But Tricky

It’s an absolutely free gift from MIT to the global community—or at least those who have access to the Internet:  MIT’s visionary Open Course Ware (OCW) website offers free content from over 1900 MIT courses for the edification and education of humankind, including course descriptions, syllabi, calendars, reading lists, assignments, answer keys, study materials, exams, lecture notes, video lectures and “related resources” that the instructor hopes will supplement the course material.  It’s a truly visionary resource that embraces the philosophy of open access.  However, the content itself hasn’t been adapted for use outside the classroom, so it can be difficult for the casual online student to understand how best to interact with the materials.

OCW is distinct from other training and educational materials because the courses bear the MIT brand; all of the content is “authoritative” in that it has been developed by professors at an internationally renowned and accredited university.  While the Internet already offers tons of “how-to” videos and cool educational resources to teach scientific and engineering principles, OCW attempts to be an authoritative resource that gathers advanced educational material on all kinds of subjects together in one place.

The content varies in format, including text, images, audio, video and hyperlinks.  Some of the content is embedded directly into the website for online use, while other content must be downloaded in order to gain access.  Users also have the option to download the entire contents of a course so they can access all of the materials for that course even when they are offline.  This is beneficial to users who do not have constant Internet access, and reminiscent of the WiderNet eGranary “Internet in a box” initiative at the University of Iowa.

OCW content was developed by instructors to use in classrooms, which means that most of it was not initially created for a digital environment.  Some of the content was born as print material (syllabi, answer keys, exams, etc.), some was captured as audio and video during lectures and demonstrations, and then a smattering of born-digital materials were added to supplement the OCW offerings online.  The print material has been only minimally adapted in many cases; for instance, consider the syllabus from Writing Early American Lives: Gender, Race, Nation, Faith, Fall 2005, which states:

“You should expect to be present and prepared at all meetings of the class (repeated absences will affect your grade). You should also expect to present some material in class once or twice during the semester.”

Clearly, this syllabus has not been adapted to apply to the online user, and thus it acts more like an artifact of the MIT classroom experience than a true online resource.  This is useful in that it shows users “how things are done” at MIT, but it could be frustrating when users are trying to understand how best to interact with the materials in an online environment.

MIT hopes to capture a global audience with OCW, and prominently features testimonials from international users on the website.  Many of the courses have been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Thai and Persian, which is further evidence of its international scope.  The content is designed for students who want to supplement their studies, teachers who want assistance developing courses or supplemental materials, businesses who want to educate and train staff, and what MIT calls “self learners” and others have called “lifelong learners.”  Testimonials come from a variety of users, which emphasizes that MIT hopes the site will be used by a truly diverse audience, including home school teachers, entrepreneurs, high school AP students, and college students in politically volatile areas whose studies have been interrupted but still want to continue their work.

Those who use the site do so because they want to delve deeply into an area of academic learning, most likely based in engineering, but also possibly the humanities and social sciences.  However, for students who do not want to engage in a full course of study, the content can be very difficult to penetrate, and I think this is one of the weaknesses of OCW.  Because the content has been designed for classroom use and then simply shared online with minimal adaptation, online users must follow the syllabus in a linear fashion and put weeks or even months into learning the material in order to benefit from the content.  MIT added a “Highlights for High School” section in 2008 that seeks to correct this problem by identifying the most accessible and useful materials for less “advanced” students, such as demonstration videos, labs, competitions, introductory courses, and resources to support the AP Biology, Chemistry and Physics curriculum.  I would love to see MIT develop this approach for non-high school students, too, perhaps by adding a feature that allows users to browse popular videos directly from the homepage, as does the TED website.  This would make the content imminently more accessible to casual users.  OCW does provide direct links to the newest and most popular content, which is useful.

Selection, too, is difficult because the resource is so vast, with over 1900 courses to choose from.  Users can browse by course name or subject area, but looking for particular content that’s embedded within a course (such as how to use a specific programming language) can be more tricky.  Fortunately, OCW provides an advanced search option to mitigate this, which is actually very user-friendly and yielded excellent results when I gave it a try.  MIT also offers an online tutorial (with static images and screen shots) to help first-time users learn how to navigate the site and use the materials.

And it looks like OCW is here to stay.  The project was announced in 2001, and in 2002 the pilot was launched with 50 courses.  Roughly 300 courses per year have been added in subsequent years, bringing us up to more than1900 courses in 2009.  In 2008, MIT also started publishing OCW content on popular websites such as YouTube, iTunesU and Flickr, smartly creating additional access points to its content.  Materials are frequently added and updated, and users can even choose to subscribe to an RSS Feed that will notify them when a particular course has been updated.

Even though the resource is a free gift to the global community, MIT makes sure that OCW users understand that the gift does come with a price tag.  On the website they claim that:

“Each course we publish requires an investment of $10,000 to $15,000 to compile course materials from faculty, ensure proper licensing for open sharing, and format materials for global distribution.  Courses with video content cost about twice as much, but your feedback about the significant value of these video materials helps to justify the cost.”

The website frequently and prominently suggests donations of $25, $50 or $100 if users find the content useful:  for instance, a “Donate” tab is featured directly next to the “Courses” tab on the main navigation bar, as well as on the homepage and on every course page where the user downloads materials.  OCW also aggressively seeks corporate sponsorship, and they secure additional funding by referring users to Amazon.com – Amazon gives OCW a 10% cut when users click through to their website to purchase recommended textbooks.

I found it interesting that there are virtually no interactive features of the OCW website (aside from the “Donate” feature).  I would expect a resource like this to offer a wiki or at least a discussion forum for users who are engaging with the content.  After all, one glaring difference between the classroom experience and the OCW online experience is that online users do not benefit from interaction with instructors and peers.  While I’m sure that one of the obstacles to offering a feature like this is financial, I speculate that MIT likely also wants to maintain some level of control over their content.  They protect the MIT brand by offering only static content that will not be sullied by the unwashed masses…

All levity aside, though, it seems that the fundamental purpose of MIT’s OCW is essentially philosophical and philanthropic.  After all, the motto of OCW, featured prominently on the website, is “Unlocking Knowledge, Empowering Minds,” and all the content is protected by reformist Creative Commons licenses rather than more traditional and restrictive copyright licenses.  Indeed, MIT seems to have embraced an open source philosophy overall – in March 2009 they established an Open Source Mandate requiring all faculty to make their intellectual property free and available to the public with very few exceptions.  MIT seems to be saying that they’re ready to lead the way in advocating a cultural shift in the academy – a shift away from information hoarding and toward information sharing.

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