Webcast recap and recording: MIT OpenCourseWare's past and future

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This year, MIT OpenCourseWare is celebrating its tenth anniversary. That's one full decade providing open access to more than 2,000 courses with course materials including lecture notes, problem sets, syllabuses, exams, simulations, and the video lectures.

In today's webcast, Cecilia d’Oliveira, executive director of OpenCourseWare, shared the history of OpenCourseWare and its vision for the future.

The 2001 decision by the MIT faculty to allow anyone to use their course content was a groundbreaking move, one that has opened education in profound ways. Since then, an estimated 100 million individuals have accessed MIT’s resources.

A committee was formed in 2000 to look at how the Internet was going to change education and what MIT was going to do about it. The expected end result was a for-profit model, an appealing idea to many universities at the time. After a year of work and study with outside consultants, the committee concluded that the nature of MIT education would make it difficult to move online. Because MIT is a small engineering school of 10,000 high-performing students, interaction between students and faculty is key. Students get a lot of hands-on experience. Putting that online would be extremely difficult and expensive.

The committee then returned to the MIT mission statement, which says "advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century."

The next proposal was simply to make materials available so that other universities and students could take advantage of them. After consultation with faculty across MIT, there was widespread agreement to go forward on that plan. Because the goal--sharing all of MIT's courses--was expensive, the program was launched with assistance from foundations.

Why did this happen at MIT, as opposed to anywhere else? Because of an open culture. The idea of sharing online has deep roots at the school. Open source software, research paper prints, and the web were all accepted ways of sharing and spreading knowledge on-campus.

Susan Hockfield, the current president of MIT, has said, "OpenCourseWare expresses MIT's goal of advancing education around the world through a global community in which knowledge and ideas are shared openly for the benefit of all."

Ten years after the program launched, it has indeed proven to be one of the school's most transformative endeavors. The faculty has been able to magnify their contributions to education many times over.

They're also able to extend their reach beyond their own website through services like iTunes University, YouTube (which carries most of the audio and video content), and VideoLectures.net. These remote distributions account for 20 million views on YouTube and 25 million downloads on iTunes--all possible because of the open license.

"We never imagined how successful we were going to be at this," d'Oliveira said. Almost from the beginning, other leading schools like Johns Hopkins and Notre Dame wanted to know how to start their own sites. Now more than 250 schools have their own OpenCourseWare systems in the works. "We're thrilled to be losing market share, because that means the movement is growing," she continued.

How people have used OpenCourseWare

Most of the traffic is from outside the US, largely Asia and Europe, for a total of 1 million to 1.5 million hits each month and about 800,000 unique visitors. About 42% are students and 43% are self-learners with no affiliation to the university. The rest are educators and others who find uses for the course material.

Most students report that they use OCW to enhance personal knowledge or to complement a course they're already taking. The self-learners are largely exploring topics outside of their own professional fields. Educators are split, and use the materials to both increase their personal knowledge and enhance their teaching.

"We're pretty proud of what we've accomplished in the first ten years," d'Oliveria said. "We've published, virtually, the entire MIT curriculum under an open license and shown that openness can have significant benefits for students, self-learners, and MIT as an institution."

The OER ecosystem is now evolving. Newer programs include:

  • Khan Academy
  • Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative
  • Stanford virtual learning
  • FlatWorldKnowledge open textbooks
  • OpenStudy
  • P2PU

"It's clear there are many opporunties to build on what we've done and the other developments in the ecosystem," she said. "We recognize that human potential is universal, but the ability to capitalize on that potential is not."

Although OCW isn't a replacement for classroom content or even distance learning, combined with other resources it provides a valuable third option. And where the prior options are avilable, OCW makes them even more valuable.

Future directions

As OCW strives to achieve that overall vision of closing the education gap, the core mission remains the same: publishing MIT's materials and making them openly available. At the same time, they have four key new initiatives:

  • Place OCW everywhere. Share content as widely as possible through other channels, including mobile platforms.
  • Create communities of open learning. Explore a broader ecosystem of open learning that can reach those who are shut out of education. The first step will be a collaboration with OpenStudy.
  • Target key audiences. These new projects address specific needs of specific groups, such as Highlights for High School and OCW Scholar. By shaping the content, the benefits will be magnified.
  • Empower educators. Educators are an important multiplier because they can reach students who wouldn't come to the OCW site on their own.

As user expectations change over time, so will the formats and delivery of OCW content, whether created by MIT or by partners. They will work to harness the enthusiasm of their many users, with possible participation options--like tagging or captioning--up for consideration. These and other questions and decisions will be part of a major planning process launching later this year, and will take us into the next ten years of MIT OpenCourseWare.

Download the recorded webcast below.

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Ruth Suehle is the community leadership manager for Red Hat's Open Source and Standards team. She's co-author of Raspberry Pi Hacks (O'Reilly, December 2013) and a senior editor at GeekMom, a site for those who find their joy in both geekery and parenting.

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