OpenFiction [ Blog ]

June 12, 2008

OCW survey responses

Filed under: , , , — Stephen Carson @ 2:25 pm

One of the absolute joys and privileges of my job here at OCW is getting the unfiltered e-mail and survey feedback. Here’s just a sampling of responses from our currently running survey describing the site’s impact:

“This site is like a dream coming true … Being a working mother from a developing country with no financial capabilities to have a respectful graduate study… I think this a site is like a gift I have been blessed with.. It’s something that Allah should be thanked for.. Thank you MIT Thank you… May you be blessed…”

“This site has played an incredibly large role in helping me understand the material in my physics class. It definitely helped my grade in my physics class last quarter. The lectures also helped make the material interesting more than any aspect of my physics class at school did.”

“Your program is amazing for someone like myself who would rather learn at my own pace. I can also read over the course descriptions and use the information relevant to my field of work. MIT Opencourseware is the future of learning for the betterment of mankind.”

“This site has had a great impact on my educational situation because I have been able to learn a tremendous amount about topics I am personally interested in. I am a frequent user of the business section (Sloan) because I am trying to supplement my engineer degrees with business context. I love the website soo much I have set it as my IE homepage. It’s been my homepage for the past 11 months.”

“This site has had a huge impact on my educational career. I have attended San Francisco City College over the last four years, and watching the mathematics and science courses posted on this website gave me the confidence that I could succeed in an elite physics program. I will begin upper division study of physics at Columbia this fall, and I plan on using this site to augment my math and physics education from City. Thank you so much!”

“A dream, it is the best definition. I have been studying almost all my life with few resourse centers. I am Brazilian, and I studied in Faculty far from big cities therefor far from good libraries and bookshops too. I feel almost in paradise here.”

“The OCW site has been influential in my decision to return to college after an absence of over 10 years. The quality of the course materials and the caliber of instruction is a tribute to MIT. I have used the site to prepare myself for courses that planned to take at my own university. I have also discovered that in most cases the knowledge I have gained through MIT’s OCW is both more substantial and applicable from that presented in my “real” classes. As a non traditional student, and someone who would not otherwise have the opportunity to learn at an institution like MIT, I am immeasurably grateful this website exists.”

June 3, 2008


Filed under: , , , , , , — Stephen Carson @ 8:19 am

I’ve really been enjoying the Edupunk buzz, especially this recent post by Mike Caulfield (read past Iggy). Edupunk, though, is going to be quite limited if it allows itself to be defined as anti-anything, especially LMSs of all things. While Caulfield includes a lot of the negative, he does a good job of presenting the positive as well:

These Web 2.0 tools they adopted encouraged them to share their stuff with the world, instead of locking it away in a password protected course. And suddenly, they got a taste of open education. And it didn’t stop there. The tools they adopted had a true web DNA, and played well with other tools in a loosely coupled mode. So suddenly, they got a taste of what it was like to build your own custom learning environment.

And so on. They started to experience the creativity that the web can unleash, and experienced for the first time that connectivist thrill people had been going on about.

And it was then, with their courses out on the net for all to see, having developed Wordpress pages that mashed together video with slideshares with twitter updates and feeds, having witnessed students commenting on posts right next to people from across the world, having seen authors of books responding to their student’s reader response essays, directly —

It was then that it hit these people. Blackboard was never a learning tool.

And while I make no claims to the Edupunk mantle, the Edupunk vision is very consistent with my own views on and experiences with LMSs and Web 2.0 tools:

The whole idea that learning can be “managed” from a central system may even seem to be a strange notion in ten years. Instead of centrally creating a secure digital learning space for teachers and students, as we do now, the default may be that students and teachers come together in self-organizing digital spaces of their own design, where the various elements of the participants’ digital personas (blogs, vlogs, wikis, websites, facebooks, fileshares and linklists) come together via aggregation tools of their choosing. In as much as the physical classroom depends on the unique contributions of both the teacher and the students to produce the character of the learning experience, so too the digital learning experience may utlimately depend greatly on the ways in which the students project themselve into cyberspace, and the walls of an LMS may be a barrier to this.

The elements of current LMS that I found to be of most use were basically the administrative tools, and those might eventually atrophy to be the only elements that remain, if at all, as small parts of school’s student information systems. Even these are not that hard to replecate externally, with the exception of direct links to enrollment lists in administrative systems and the reporting back of grades–—though who knows, a secure RSS feed might allow even that to happen in multiple environments.

So how does this affect opencourseware publication? I’d suggest in two ways. Because it ultimately points to a situation in which learning becomes a less digitally stable undertaking—–something more fluid, with learning experiences created and dismantled rapidly and outside of any central control—–opencourseware publication can serve as an organizing principle around which learning experiences can be documented. The process of gathering materials and publishing a “snapshot” of the materials can provide a stable point of reference for future learning experiences.

Second (and this again is an idea that draws on Stephen Downes’ thinking), opencourseware may become less about providing reusable and repurposable materials that are then somehow “localized” by others, and more about providing a fertile soil for future learning experiences as old materials decompose. In trying to imagine how I might use opencourseware content in my future teaching, it seems to me if I know of a resource reasonably close to my own needs that exists at a stable URL, I would likely point to it in a blog post and provide any necessary annotation for my class in the post, rather than try to download it and edit it directly.

May 15, 2008

Asking the hard questions

Filed under: , , , , , — Stephen Carson @ 11:42 am

I also want to circle back and note the recent post by George Siemens on the Connectivism Blog, which is asking hard questions about the OER movement. Hard questions are always in order, and George is asking some great ones. I thought I’d try and answer from my personal perspective–that is neither as a representative of MIT OpenCourseWare nor as a representative of the OpenCourseWare Consortium. That being said, I’m going to address the questions from an OCW perspective, as OER is just to broad a field to speak for sensibly (which I think is one underlying weakness in some of George’s comments, which generalize across a wide range of different projects with wildly different goals). So, the hard questions:

1) Why OERs? What are we trying to achieve? The simplest possible formulation I can give is “To provide resources that increase the quantity and quality of informal and formal learning opportunities worldwide.” I was in a meeting a while back where Tim Berners-Lee said something akin to “80% of the value of the web is in the unanticipated uses people make of the content that’s available.” Within certain limits, the advantage of the web is that I don’t have to decide if I’m serving the developed or the developing world, independent or formal learners, teachers or students, etc. OCWs provide informal learning opportunities directly (in varying levels of quality depending on user needs) and are resources that allow educators to improve formal learning opportunities. The evaluation done around MIT OpenCourseWare demonstrates both cases occurring across a wide range of global audiences.

At least within the narrow confines of a simple OCW model, the anticipated audience for the educational materials is the students taking the class for which the materials were created. The open publication comes after. There are certainly decisions that might be made about how to publish those materials openly based on the anticipated audience for the open publication, but this is a distinctly different question than who the materials were created for originally. OCW publish materials designed for very local contexts, to permit a range of anticipated and unanticipated uses of those materials in other contexts, but the materials themselves are not designed for any external context. (Some OCWs, such as UC Irvine, are the exception that proves the rule.) The big challenge is to understand the uses better, and see how the open publication might be modified to better support these uses.

2) OERs are window dressing if systems and structures of education do not change. Okay a view, not a question. I think “window dressing” is a bit harsh, but OCW at least is primarily a window into systems and structures at institutions rather than a fundamental change to those systems and structures. I’m not sure ultimately its fair to task the OER movement with changing the systems and structures of global education, though of course many within the movement hope it actually will. It’s not clear that the structures and systems have to change for OER to be on balance beneficial to learners and educators.

On the other hand, transparency has proven to be a powerfully transformative force, one that has led to the decline of many entrenched systems. The transparency provided by OCW can allow for the rapid transfer and dissemination of educational innovation already occurring within systems. If, in the context of a very localized educational experience at MIT, a professor develops an innovative approach, and then publishes it openly, it becomes instantly (or nearly so, anyway) available to anyone else who might be struggling with a similar problem. It doesn’t mean it ought to be adopted as the gold standard in all situations, just that for those who do see an advantage in the approach, they have the opportunity to benefit from it. I’d argue there are equally powerful transparency effects at work within the institutions that publish their materials.

3) OERs exhibit (are embedded with) certain ideologies/views/pedagogies, etc. Again a view not a question. George presents this as a problem, where I see opportunity. I dare you to find any educational material that doesn’t exhibit (or is not embedded with) certain ideologies/views/pedagogies. The difference between textbooks and OERs is that only the rich developed countries can produce textbooks. While access to modes of production for OERs are not completely level between developed and developing countries, they are at the very least radically more balanced. This means the ideologies/views/pedagogies of the developing world will be able to compete more equally in the marketplace of ideas than before.

Despite Geopre’s “cute kitten” analogy to describe (I’m assuming) the current interest in OER in North America, the OpenCourseWare movement has developed much more robustly outside of North America, with significant blocks of institutions beginning to share content in other developed regions including Europe, South Korea and Japan—but also in China, Latin America, Turkey, Vietnam and India. This has happened in part, I think, because these regions see the opportunity to have their voices heard, to share their knowledge. It’s only lately that North America is taking notice. The OCW Consortium members have collectively published about 6,200 courses, and it’s a fair bet that at least half are from outside North America.

I really applaud George’s call for more research, although more has been done than I think he’s aware. The evaluation report posted on the OCW site answers many of the questions he raises, at least to some extent. But there’s much more work to be done. These are hard questions, and we all should keep raising them. But I’m at least optimistic about the answers. And I too like kittens.

And cats.

I find myself remiss…

Filed under: , , , — Stephen Carson @ 8:48 am

…in failing to note sooner the recent launch of the Open.Michigan site and the sample of courses on the Open.Michigan OCW site. The Open.Michigan site draws together the full range of open initiatives at Michigan, which is quite impressive, and the Open.Michigan OCW site provides a first look at what promises to grow into a very large-scale OCW in the years to come. Congratulations to the team there—I know this is the result of much behind-the-scenes labor and its great to see it coming to fruition.

April 17, 2008

Stanford considers OER

Filed under: , , — Stephen Carson @ 12:38 pm

The Stanford Daily is reporting on the discussions underway on campus about a possible open educational resources project there. The deliberations include faculty, students and administration. From the article:

Stanford currently offers a little over a dozen full-length audio courses for free download through “iTunes U,” a branch of Apple’s popular downloading service that hosts digital content from colleges and universities. A Stanford YouTube channel distributing select video content will launch in the coming months.

While these offerings are limited, the University has convened a task force, the Stanford Open Education Initiative (SOEI), to explore the possibility of significantly expanding content and accessibility in the near future.

“[SOEI has been] researching the range of options,” said Scott Stocker, director of Stanford Web Communications, including “joining the OpenCourseWare Consortium, building a site similar to the Yale Open Courses site, or attempting to create a unique Stanford offering.”

Very exciting stuff!

April 15, 2008

Another best-of

Filed under: , , — Stephen Carson @ 8:30 am

Here’s another listing of top resources by discipline that have been appearing of late–this one on math. I point to it not because MIT is in the top spot, but more remarkably because seven of the ten by my count are OCW Consortium members–plus CMU, which is a fellow Hewlett grantee. Really very nice to see so many unique contributions and illustrates that OER are not one-size-fits-all.

March 31, 2008

Playing at the margins in open education

Filed under: , , — Stephen Carson @ 9:53 am

David Wiley recently articulated again a model I’ve heard elsewhere in the OCW community and (as David mentions) in the Cape Town Declaration. This model identifies three elements of open education: open content, open learning support, and open credentialing.

Before the digital age, these three components had been not only closed, but also generally tightly integrated. The key insight of OCW was that in a digital age, it was possible to disaggregate content and make it widely available without harming the integrated experience. Others in the open educational field are exploring the disaggregation of the other two components.

This is probably not that new a model, all things considered, but what interests me in this is not the components themselves, but the margins between them. As our project and the OCW effort overall has picked up, we’ve seen increasing numbers of attempts by other projects, companies and individuals to “plug into” OCW content in various ways to connect the content to credentialing or learning support.

Many of these don’t work because the models just don’t draw usage, or they attempt to leverage institutional reputation rather than content, or (occasionally) are commercial uses inappropriate to the intent of the authors in sharing the content. But increasingly, I’ve been seeing models emerging that do work, and these interfaces between the silos of open education are of great interest to me. It’s an incredibly complicated and context-specific undertaking, but I do think that appropriate and effective interfaces between content, learning support and credentialing (some open, some not) will continue to emerge, and this will be one path through which open projects will begin to leverage one another.

January 31, 2008

Free fiction courses

Filed under: , , — Stephen Carson @ 10:10 am is carrying a list of free fiction courses online. Sadly, tOFP is not included, but the ones listed are pretty good (and MIT OpenCourseWare makes the list).

January 25, 2008

Bill Gates on OpenCourseWare

Filed under: , , — Stephen Carson @ 9:15 am

Forbes magazine is carrying a commentary piece by Bill Gates on the educational challanges we face in the 21st century, which mentions MIT OpenCourseWare very prominently:

…technology can provide many of the tools needed to begin to tackle the challenge of scale. The combination of software, broadband networks and powerful, affordable devices is making it possible to put high-quality educational resources into the hands of any teacher or student who has access to basic technology infrastructure and tools. The unique ability of technology to enable today’s limited educational resources to scale quickly and affordably across great distances to a great many people makes it an essential ingredient in our efforts to transform education.

MIT’s OpenCourseware Initiative is an exciting example of how technology can help make great educational materials scale. Through the OpenCourseware Web site, lecture notes, exams and other resources for more than 1,800 MIT classes are available online for free. Developed by professors at one of the world’s great universities, these materials used to be available to only a small handful of students. Now, anyone, anywhere in the world, can access them, and on average more than 1 million people visit the site every month…

It’s of course wonderful to have someone so respected in both the business and philanthropic communities providing visibility to the project. His comments don’t capture the full energy of the OpenCourseWare/Open Educational Resources movement, but hopefully attention drawn to us will drive attention to all the other great projects as well. I also like that he points out that technology can enable educational change, but is not sufficient:

Of course, technology by itself is not the answer to all the issues we face in our efforts to live up to Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There are significant social, cultural and institutional challenges that must be overcome as well. Technology must be implemented as part of a thoughtful, holistic approach to education transformation that includes teacher training, relevant curricula, parental involvement and programs for children that fill unmet needs for basics like nutrition and health care.

One of the things I enjoy most about my work is the exposure on a daily basis to amazing people from all walks of life devoting their talents and energies to addressing all of these challenges. It’s something that allows me to maintain a level of optimism about our future.

January 18, 2008

Industrial vs. artisanal approaches to education

Filed under: , , , — Stephen Carson @ 12:50 pm

I’m almost through reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, which if you haven’t read, you should. It’s easily one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in the last ten years and will really alter your perceptions of what and how you eat, and how you participate in a larger system of food production and consumption. Much of what he discusses I already knew, albeit in bits and pieces: Corn products, especially high-fructose corn syrup, make up a dangerously large portion of the “food” we consume. Industrial meat production is barbaric and biologically dangerous. “Health foods” aren’t all that healthy.

But like any great nonfiction book, it moves beyond fact to paint a really profound picture of the systems that generate those facts. It really has altered my perspective in important ways. One of the most dramatic distinctions he draws in the book is between industrial food production and artisanal food production. One could go one for a long time about the failings of industrial food production: its reliance on petrochemicals, the trend toward monoculture, the relentless logic of increased yield that leads to systemic mutilation and abuse of animals. He contrasts this with an example of a farm in Virginia that uses sustainable methods to generate a wide range of agricultural products in sync with the local ecology and seasons.

This isn’t a post about food, though, or even good non-fiction. It’s a post about the application of the industrial vs. artisanal distinction to education. I’ve realized in the course of reading the book that much of my thinking about education and open educational resources is colored by my sense that education done well is essentially and artisanal and deeply local undertaking, and that successful open educational resources generally honor this.

Why artisanal? I’ve said in the past that I think education is a highly localized undertaking because cultures, academic systems, and instructional technologies vary so widely, and this explains it in part. These differences have launched the thousand ships of the localization discussions in open educational resources circles, and suggest that most educational resources can be made appropriate for a wide range of contexts, if only they are sufficiently flexible to permit enough localization. I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with the concept of localization, not because I think its not true, but more because it doesn’t feel sufficient.

Education seems to me to be artisanal because the best courses I’ve taken–and the best courseware I’ve seen–are the result of a particular teacher’s personal engagement and experience with the concepts and practices of a particular field. This may be a by-product of largely studying humanities, but I don’t think so. I’ve listened to enough hacker discussions of “elegant” code to know there’s more going on in software development than just getting a program to produce the desired end result. My sense is that most expert knowledge is the accretion over time of an organic and individualistic understanding of both fact and practice, and that courseware is a way of communicating that understanding. Learning in some sense then is a process of apprenticeship. To paraphrase John Seely Brown, not learning physics, but learning how to be a phyisicist.

There are obviously better and worse ways of communicating this accrued experience. Participatory learning, ways to engaging students and helping them to internalize practice, but teaching and courseware seem to me to be intensely dependent on the personal as well as the cultural, academic and technological, which is where localization reaches its limit. There are only so many pieces of courseware out there that are congruent with my experiences as a writer and writing instructor. No amount of rejiggering of format or examples or academic level is going to make some resource appropriate for my uses. It doesn’t mean they are wrong, or low quality. Just that they don’t helpfully engage (sometimes by challenging) my understanding of the practice of fiction writing.

And some of the discussions I find less engaging about education–competencies, learning outcomes, standardized testing–seem to me the result of an industrial attempt to create a uniform end result from an inherently non-uniform process. Don’t get me wrong, there are some areas of education where a standardized end result is important, but it also tends to be reductionist. Sure, it’s desirable for everyone to share some basic competencies, but it’s also important to encourage the pursuit of individuals’ unique engagements with subjects they are passionate about, even at the primary and secondary levels. And this has always happened for me though contact with teachers and students so engaged.

How does this apply to OER? OER can definitely provide resources that can be picked up from one context and used in another, and the extent that this happens naturally it’s a good thing. But I think that OER are at their weakest when they try to be all things for all people. Educational resources are remarkably resistant to industrial models of mass replication and application, even with significant localization. OER at their best present very unique and very local engagements with academic fields, deeply rooted in culture and personal experience. They present ways of being academically engaged that are less about digital resources that can be used and more about sharing practices and unique understandings. I can learn new approaches to understanding the craft of fiction writing by studying the courseware of a photography class, even though there are no materials I can directly use in my own instruction. Rather the site provides new approaches to creating my own materials. My suspicion is that one of the reasons OpenCourseWare turns out to be an effective model is that it presents as a whole a professor’s unique engagement with his or her field, that it models what it means to be engaged in academic practice in a deeply personal and individual way. It presents an artisanal model that can be instructive when applied thoughtfully to other unique environments rather than an industrial product designed for use in all environments.

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