MIT and the future of open courseware

by P

MIT OCW just launched its first five MIT OCW Scholar courses. These courses are not just openly licensed, but especially designed to support independent learners who want to make use of them. That means, all the materials you need to master the subjects are now available to you. Bravo!

Despite its resounding success (70 million visitors so far) I have often heard criticism that MIT OCW wasn’t going far enough, that it was too focused on content only without thinking about the learner, and that many of its courses were incomplete. The thing is, that I don’t think MIT disagreed with any of these statements. Not all the materials were included, because the original OCW wasn’t designed for independent self-learners who would need all the materials openly available – it was designed for instructors and students, who would have access to journal articles and books through their libraries.

Thanks to ongoing efforts to collect data and feedback from users (MIT is one of very few open education projects that publishes stats and comprehensive evaluation reports) it became clear that the largest group of users was not students and lecturers, but independent learners. Stepping back from the direct MIT perspective, and looking at the global open education ecosystem - it is quite amazing to see this amount of demand for course materials that come without a certificate or degree. It also presented a fantastic opportunity to go even further than OCW had gone so far as an enabler for global learning.

The basic materials and course structures were already in place as part of OCW. What was missing were background documents, mainly textbooks or textbook replacements, more detailed instruction on assessment and how to make sure one had mastered the expected objectives of the course. And that is what the MIT OCW Scholar courses provide – in addition to video lecturers by some of the world’s leading experts in their fields (who at least in this case happens to be an amazing lecturers as well).

Another thing that was missing were the people to learn with. MIT recently started linking some of their courses to OpenStudy communities for questions and answers, and the Scholar courses are included. While the integration is still at the course level – and not connected to detailed components of the course – I believe that is in the works for the future. Having a space to collaborate with others, discuss questions and get support, adds to the value that MIT OCW offers already.

The integration with missing materials, and other learners presents a great opportunity for the entire OpenCourseWare movement. Partnering with small projects that innovate outside of institutional structures can help get us there. At P2PU we have been working on a few ideas how independent and informal study groups can be integrated with OCW materials – and how a feedback mechanism would bring back value to the original OCW authors and institutions. But that deserves a separate blog post.

For now – congratulations MIT for once again pushing the boundaries of how institutions can open up access to their materials, and processes, to create more opportunities for learning.