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Unintended Consequences of MIT's Open Course Initiative

The leaders of MIT's Open Courseware Initiative (OCI) admit they're already hearing from people who are asking faculty and staff at other schools if they are using "the MIT curriculum." During a panel discussion at the Syllabus conference in Boston this week (Webcast:, they made it clear that "adoption" of the MIT curriculum by other institutions is not part of its purpose, but that "adaption" of the MIT curriculum is a good thing.

It seems as though OCI is leading to a more far-reaching "peer review" of curricula than ever before possible. Sounds good to me! In at last one small way, it's reminiscent of G. Randolph Mayes' call here last August for a more "transparent" university.

I was supposed to be in Boston, this week, but I didn't get there. As the last weekend approached I viewed the weather reports with trepidation, and when the Syllabus editor, Mary Grush, called me to let me know there was a room available for me in the conference hotel for Saturday night, I regretted to inform her that my flight had been cancelled. Two additional cancelled flights later; it became clear to me that I was not getting to Boston at all. So I have missed a really good conference and some really great speakers.

But thanks to the wonders of our information technology, and some contributed infrastructure and time by MIT, the Campus Computing Project, and Apple Computer Inc., I was able to listen live to the session, in which the Campus Computing Project's Kenneth C. Green interviewed two sets of panelists, one on Open Source and one on OCI. The entire session is archived for streaming at the link above. I recommend the first half also, which gets into what non-techies need to know when choosing between off-the-shelf software or joining with collaborative open source projects. Please recommend it to high-level folks at your institution - they can listen to it in less than an hour.

But it was something in the discussion of OCI that really got my attention. Casey kept pushing on the "why" question: "Why is MIT willing to spend what some estimate at upwards of $100 million to share all of its course materials with the world?" His panelists were Ann H. Margulies, OCI executive director, and Steven R. Lerman, director of the Center for Educational Computing Initiatives - both at MIT. They characterized the efforts so far as Web-based publication of educational materials produced at MIT; kind of the raw materials which learners and educators can use to advance their own education or to teach others. And they know that other educators are so far mostly taking out bits and pieces - a segment or a simulation here and there.

Then it got really interesting. Steve noted that our faculty has always shared their syllabi with professional peers, way back when mimeograph technology first appeared, and then xerography. He suggested that in some way this was similar, but with the obvious enhancements of Internet availability, a shared structure, consistent cross-referencing, and meta-tagging.

Ann noted that they're seeing some of what they'd hoped for from outside MIT already happening from the inside - a kind of "peer review" of curricula. It seems that "publication" of what is not really a textbook and is certainly not a replacement for actually taking a class or interacting with a professor, might lead to the kind of "continuous improvement" in curricular evolution that is characteristic of total quality management (TQM).

In an opinion for this newsletter back in August, Architecture for the Transparent University, philosophy professor G. Randolph Mayes of California State University, Sacramento, wrote: "The informational privacy of the traditional classroom could be regarded as an accidental feature of its brick and mortar construction, not something essential to learning. We are raising the consciousness of old classrooms by installing the neural architecture necessary to access and display the contents of computer files located anywhere on earth. Why stop there? If we can give our classrooms eyes to see out, we can give them eyes to see in as well."

Well, the eyes are "seeing in" now - at least into the MIT curricula. And within its own faculty, it seems as though sharing with the larger world has prompted other colleagues to share and share alike. Hopefully, as more of the curricula from MIT get evolved and adapted by other faculty, with feedback, and as other institutions join in the sharing, we may be getting some of what Mayes was asking for. As I noted then, it seems like many aspects of the transparent university are inevitable.

Note: Now that MIT has more than 500 courses up and lots of people are using OCI, the commentary and testimonials are flying. It's worth a look at its primary Web site to catch up with the fast pace of what's being learned from this brave initiative:

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