Curricular Reform, Conspiracy, and Philanthropy

Curriculum reform is no small undertaking. The process involves time, people, significant resources, and lots of good will. Assessment is also important, as are leadership and money.

A little over a decade ago the National Science Foundation launched an ambitious effort to reform undergraduate engineering education. The grant competition was constructed in a way that no single university could get any of the millions of dollars NSF had allocated for this project. Rather, the project specs required collaborative efforts. Institutions formed partnerships, initially to develop the proposals and, if funded by NSF, to work on developing a “new” curriculum for undergraduate engineering education.

Of course, given institutional and departmental egos, the partnership process was complex. For example, the rational observer might think that regional consortia—Big Ten campuses or universities in New England—could have found a way to collaborate on these projects. In theory California institutions—the University of California campuses, along with Caltech, the Cal State institutions, and USC—would have made an ideal consortium and could have prepared a very competitive proposal.

One would think. The final proposals reflected complex institutional alliances that crossed regions and time zones. The California universities aligned themselves with institutions elsewhere in the country: UC-Berkeley, UCLA, and USC were each involved in separate proposals.

I got to watch some of this up close and personal, as my research at the time included work on the talent pipeline in science and engineering. However, my research has moved in other directions over the past decade, so I don’t know what happened with the NSF undergraduate engineering projects. Given the millions that NSF and the winning bidders were going to spend on these initiatives, I would like to think these projects led to significant change.

The NSF undergraduate engineering initiative comes to mind in the context of MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiative ( Launched with much fanfare in 2001 during the waning months of the dot com era, OCW reflects MIT's thoughtful decision to pursue a different path. Then (as now) other institutions (and institutional officials) saw fortune in online education. MIT’s assessment was different: the public story is that after much study (and lots of courting from potential corporate partners) MIT officials were not convinced that there really was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of online education.

The OCW announcement, almost three years ago, was open for easy inference. MIT officials insisted that the university was not offering online courses to students; rather, MIT faculty were putting their course materials—syllabi and supporting resources—on the Web for others to use. In other words, one could see the syllabus and review some of the course materials, but not take the class.

And not just a few classes. OCW’s announced goal is to make the complete MIT curriculum—everything in the undergraduate and graduate curriculum, across all fields, totalling some 2000 courses—available over the next few years. Speaking at the November 2003 EDUCAUSE Conference, Anne Margulies, executive director of the OCW project, announced that MIT has made significant progress towards this goal: as of fall 2003, the resources for some 500 MIT courses had been posted on the Web.

I’ll confess that like many, I was not sure what to make of the initial OCW announcement. It was clear that MIT was not offering courses or certification, just course outlines and some course content. MIT officials seemed adamant that the OCW audience was not students.

So let’s assume (or at least infer) that OCW’s target audience is really faculty. If so, why all the public fuss about what some observers have tagged as MIT’s $100 million investment in OCW?

After all, many faculty have willingly shared syllabi and course materials with their colleagues at other institutions. More recently, some professors have used the Internet to review (and even poach) course outlines and supporting content posted on the Web. On the other hand, do faculty at Caltech, Ohio State, or Purdue really want or need MIT’s version of introductory or advanced courses casting a public shadow over their own syllabi?

However, a conversation on a recent trip to Australia helped me see OCW in a new context. Faculty at several universities in Australia told me that prospective students in selected science and engineering majors are now asking if these programs use the MIT curriculum. Interestingly, the queries have been addressed to professors at some of the “Sandstone” institutions (Australia’s oldest and elite universities, their version of the Ivy league).

So now, following the conversations in Australia, I began to wonder: Is OCW a carefully-crafted curriculum conspiracy—MIT’s effort to drive and dominate science and engineering curricula across the globe? By opting not to offer online courses, has MIT found a smarter, better, more creative way to protect and expand its “brand” against other universities, in the US and elsewhere, offering online courses, certificates, and degrees? Will “teaching the MIT curriculum” become a new measure of implied or inferred program quality? Will U.S. News and World Report begin to rate science and engineering programs on the effective implementation of MIT courses and the MIT cirriculum?

Admittedly, these are whimsical and rhetorical questions. MIT’s $100 million investment in OCW far surpasses the money NSF allocated for the undergraduate engineering initiative a decade ago. But assisted by a clear vision and hopefully unburdened by the politics and process of faculty committees, OCW may have far greater reach and impact than many past and current NSF curricular initiatives, particularly in developing nations.

Indeed, is it too much hyperbole to think that MIT’s OCW initiative will be a catalyst for curricular reform in science and engineering education, in the US and elsewhere? Maybe so.

Is there a risk that OCW could foster a homogenized curriculum? Possibly. Time will tell.

And what happens when money begins to matter? Content, supported by infrastructure, is king on the Internet. OCW provides infrastructure for the content of MIT courses. What happens when the data begin to reveal demand, and demand curves provide a way to extrapolate dollars?

All interesting questions. But in the interim, credit MIT for choosing the road not taken. In her presentation at the 2003 EDUCAUSE Conference (available as a video archive, Anne Margulies described OCW as intellectual philanthropy—MIT’s gift to higher education across the globe. In the p'et’s words, that road not taken—opting for intellectual philanthropy over potential profit—may make all the difference.

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