At First Glance--And Later On

One of the best things in cyberspace is expanding, and that's a good thing. MIT's OpenCourseWare initiative (OCW) has been around now for a while. I first visited OCW only about a week after the first one or two courses were available. They were pretty high-powered courses without much useful content on line and I left a bit disgruntled, thinking that there was not much there a person could work with, especially without direct access to the pertinent faculty. It's a different site now, with nearly 1,000 courses available. You should go there and maybe poke around for some interesting courses.

As I did so recently, a strong memory came back to me from when I visited a number of top graduate schools in anthropology in 1973, trying to decide which of many offers I would accept. At each school I registered for a day's worth of official visits, but then I arrived early and unofficially sat in the back of classes and watched faculty and students interact. At one such school, in the south, during my "stealth day" visit, one of the lead faculty members stood at a podium and droned on from class notes that were on yellowed paper and crackled as he turned the pages. Although I went through the official visits the next day, the image of those dry, dusty, old lecture notes kept that school from my serious consideration.

Here's what OCW tells the world it is and isn't. It:

  • Is a publication of MIT course materials
  • D'es not require any registration
  • Is not a degree-granting or certificate-granting activity
  • D'es not provide access to MIT faculty

Please check out the MIT OpenCourseWare Web site yourself. There are more than 100 courses in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science section. I am sure that you can find one or two to get "lost" in and learning something.

There are lots of courses there, with incredible depth--entire streaming videos of lectures and labs, and so forth. But I am going to dig a little deeper into a single, simpler course: MAS.110: Fundamentals of Computational Media Design, Spring 2003, that is not one of the most extensively documented, just to show that even one of the least-documented courses offers good value.

MAS 110: After clicking on "Media Arts and Sciences" we see a listing of available courses, most of which are graduate level. MAS 110 is an undergraduate course.

When you arrive at the course, a shaded box to the right lists the staff, the course meeting times, the fact that it is an undergraduate course, and asks for feedback on OCW or this particular course. Clearly, publishing curricula and asking for comment and feedback, and allowing comparison and wide usage in different circumstances has lots of advantages, but the best may be--over time--a general increase in all curriculum. That's encouraging.

On the left-hand column is a simple navigation menu that lists "Course Home," "Syllabus," "Calendar," "Assignments," and "Projects." The image on the page is of what was a poster promoting the display, titled "Eleven," of the class projects of the eleven MIT students who took this course in the spring of 2003. (A nicely done "bread crumbs" trail allows you to know where you are at all times, regardless of how deep you dig.)

The students explored themes of "peace in an unpeaceful world," and six of the eleven have permitted their projects to be available along with the professor's class materials on the OCW Web site--as PDF documents.

The class syllabus is simple. A description of the intent of the class, a single text assignment to a 20-year-old book, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, a note about grading, a note about enrollment limitations, and a note about a studio fee required of enrollees. The class calendar lists "sessions," many of which are "computer studio," "design," "critique," and so forth. The assignments page has more depth, linking to PDF documents of "problem sets" assigned to students, along with a notation of when they were assigned.

"Problem Set 2," sends the students out with a digital camera and a list of images they are to locate and capture. At the same time, related "Storytelling Notes" list a number of films such as "Fallen Angels," directed by Wong Kar-Wai--and a list of features to be noted during each film. It is difficult to tell if the films were screened in class or assigned out of class.

"Problem Set 4/5" requires the design and production of several assignments, all relating to a fictional campaign for the MIT student body government on the part of the student. For example: "PRINT: Design one 8.5" by 11" poster for your campaign for a specific UA office. You can use monochrome type in any manner you wish--stretch it, torture it, adore it."

One example of a student project is titled "Butterflies of War," and uses a nature scene with digitally modified Sherman tanks as "tank butterflies" engaged in a battle. The student found a great deal of meaning in the ludicrous notion of butterflies fighting wars. Another's, "The Suh State," makes an analogy--visually--between the Stalinist authoritarian state and MIT's campus, by staging a series of political campaign photographs in such a way as to emphasize the most drab, least humanistic views of MIT that the student could find.

So, completing the loop . . . after I made my graduate school decision and attended the University of Michigan, I frequently wondered--at first, until I learned otherwise--whether faculty compared class syllabi or collaborated on them. Over time, I learned that for many research-oriented faculty, very little time was spent in doing anything with the curriculum, much less comparing content and creative ideas with others.

MIT reports that many others are using and comparing curricula through OCW, with favorable results. Huge amounts of the content are being translated into Spanish, Portugese, Chinese, and more. The next OCW initiative is to encourage faculty from other institutions to publish their courses within OCW. Once that starts happening with regularity, the synergy of faculty being able to look at and compare, and collect the most appropriate parts from various courses, should have a hugely positive effect on teaching and learning.

Frankly, I don't know who on any given campus would be the person to decide to cooperate or not, as an institution, but if you know who that is on your campus I urge you to at least suggest this possibility to them. And if not, well, then you can do a lot of learning about IT yourself--for free!

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