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Open Education | Feature

CT asks three leading advocates of open education to evaluate the impact of the DIY U movement on traditional brick-and-mortar institutions.

The publication of Anya Kamenetz's DIY U: Edpunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2010) caused quite a splash in the higher ed community. If, as she advocates, highly motivated students can access quality online coursework for free--if they can create their own learning paths based on their interests, passions, and professional needs--what does that mean for the future of the traditional brick-and-mortar institution? Is this a fringe movement, or are we looking at the higher ed of tomorrow? To find out, Campus Technology sat down with three leading visionaries in the open education movement to talk about its potential impact on traditional colleges and universities.

Campus Technology: Is the brick-and-mortar institution really in jeopardy?

Stephen Carson: I tend to think not. The educational needs in the United States and around the world are so immense right now that we're going to need every avenue available for providing education to the populations that are interested in learning. Open education has really been about expanding access to education, and one of the things we discovered along the way was an enormous untapped demand for independent learning opportunities. These are not necessarily people who would otherwise go to brick-and-mortar institutions, but instead are people who are nonetheless seeking educational opportunities at a more informal level.

Our Panelists

Steve Carson
Steve Carson is external relations director for MIT OpenCourseWare at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He served as the first president of the OpenCourseWare Consortium from 2008 to 2011, when he oversaw the incorporation of the organization as an independent nonprofit. He currently serves on the organization's board of directors.

John Ittelson
John Ittelson is director of outreach for California Virtual Campus and professor of information technology and communication design at California State University, Monterey Bay. He currently represents the CSU Chancellor's Office as the lead on e-portfolio initiatives in the CSU System, and other national collaborative activities on e-portfolios.

Candace Thille
Candace Thille is director of the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University (PA). She served on the working group to coauthor the National Education Technology Plan and on a working group of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology to write a report for the Obama administration on improving STEM higher education.

John Ittelson: In the DIY model, the students are typically not new to higher ed. They have defined their educational goals and are trying to find their own path. Traditional universities are very much an extension of the industrial model that we have in our K-12 schools. DIY students are figuring out what they want to learn and then taking the courses they need to achieve that. They're creating their own curriculum by putting together these pieces. These open ed initiatives are really the leading edge of changes we're going to see across the spectrum of education. Change happens from the fringes of institutions, and that's where we're seeing do-it-yourself take hold. We're going to see a demand from students for a greater ability to create their own path for their education.

Candace Thille: The challenge for traditional institutions will be to figure out how to use the emerging knowledge about how people learn in combination with the opportunities afforded by information technology and the wealth of open educational resources (OER). If universities can work that out, they will be able to serve more students, serve a greater variety of students, and reduce the cost of instruction--while improving quality.

Higher education needs integrated research that supports innovation and the evaluation of interactive teaching strategies and technologies in various contexts. Ongoing research and adaptive management are critical because the context is in flux. The domain knowledge that students are expected to learn, the number and complexity of skills they are expected to develop, and the number of students who are expected to achieve a college degree are all growing. The variability in the student population and our understanding of how people learn are growing, and the technology and the way people use technology are changing rapidly. Information technology can offer ways of creating, over time, a complex stream of data about how students think and reason while engaged in important learning activities that can support adaptive decision-making.

CT: The college experience is as much about social interaction as it is about learning. Will this be sacrificed or will students achieve a similar experience in a different way?

Ittelson: Not all students need that residential experience. I know instances where students at brick-and-mortar institutions feel just as disconnected and lost as some people do in online or DIY environments. The issue--in all areas of higher ed--is engaging. If you look at the DIY movement, what people consider a threat to higher ed institutions are really first indicators of what we should be looking at as a way to increase student engagement in all of our educational institutions. Greater success in all programs, whether face-to-face or online, will be achieved by increasing student engagement. And what it means to engage students is very different in each of these environments. For DIY students, choosing their own path might enhance the breadth and depth of their experience, because they're focusing on their strengths, their interests, and their passions.

Carson: One of the early conceptual mistakes in the development of distance learning was attempting to re-create the campus on the computer, because you're always going to get a "less than" product. The internet provides the opportunity for new methods of educating and new approaches to pedagogies that are probably going to be substantially different from the campus-based experience. There probably will be social aspects to it--you see that with sites like and the way people connect on Facebook--but these are substantially different experiences from what you'd get in person, and I don't think one is necessarily a substitute for the other.

Thille: Most traditional colleges and universities have three primary goals: research, or the creation of knowledge; teaching, or the dissemination of knowledge; and service to the community. Students attending physical colleges learn how to work and learn with people from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. In the past few years, the networking power of technology has given learners access to a much wider pool of expertise, guidance, and support, and fostered participation in social learning communities--beyond the walls of college or home.

Ittelson: We know that networking, study groups, and social interaction help students learn. If I were to make a prediction, I would say we're going to see a convergence of classrooms, rather than a big distinction between brick-and-mortar and online or DIY learning. I see the walls of the brick-and-mortar classroom and the campus-specific LMS falling down. I see a network of connected classrooms, so a student taking an advanced calculus class at one traditional institution might be engaged in a study group with a student who's taking an online calculus course, who in turn might be engaged with an engineer who's doing a DIY refresher course using MIT OpenCourseWare for a project he's working on professionally. They're all in a shared classroom, but that classroom isn't tied to a specific institution. The classroom exists only as the intellectual sharing of knowledge around the content of that course.

CT: Which institutions are most threatened by DIY U? Is it all universities and colleges, or are some closer to extinction than others?

Thille: "Extinction" is a pretty extreme term.

Carson: Agreed. The threats to institutions are a bit exaggerated at this point, partly because the university experience teaches students not what to know but how to know. It's fine to be a DIY learner pulling things from all over the internet, but you need to have developed a certain amount of discipline and understanding of what the higher ed experience is all about to do that successfully and get the maximum benefit. The four-year college experience will continue to be part of people's educational lives. That will be the time when they really develop an understanding of what it means to be a learner and to learn in a structured way.

Thille: The role of traditional colleges and universities now is to lead the process of improving post-secondary education through thoughtful application of the emerging knowledge from the science of learning to the design, implementation, and evaluation of web-based learning environments. In leading this effort, traditional higher education has the distinct advantage of having the faculty who possess the domain expertise--the expertise in engaging in research, and the passion not only for their own fields of study but also for their students' learning.

Carson: What you're going to see is that learning doesn't end after you receive your degree. Learning is an ongoing part of maintaining your professional expertise. Lifelong learning has been a buzz phrase for some time, but I think the rubber is really hitting the road on that issue. In most fields, you really cannot function as a professional unless you spend a significant amount of your time continuing to learn about your field.

Ittelson: That's all true, but I think the campuses at greatest risk are those that have not come up with a process for managing change. Rather than a particular type of institution, such as small liberal arts schools, campuses of every breed and flavor that are unwilling to change will be most affected. Campuses will have to be more open to online learning. They need to be more open to change in the areas of articulation and transferring credits. We're going to see alternative ways of demonstrating and assessing competency at a granular level that will facilitate the transfer of credits. We need to make it easier for alternative educational methods, such as open ed, to grow within our established system of higher education.

CT: How can forward-thinking colleges and universities embrace this trend to make it a positive development for both students and the institution?

Ittelson: The biggest factor will be whether those people who are in power positions and who usually defend the status quo can embrace change. They need to be proactive as a strategy. Every campus has a set of "fringe" faculty who are trying to push the envelope when it comes to technology and new ways of learning. Those faculty members should be incorporated into committees on innovation. If you can bring those people into the mainstream in a way that helps them grow, some of their ideas will turn out to be great, even as some turn out to be failures. But we don't want to discourage that creativity. If you look at what is happening in other industries and you look at the economic forecast, which calls for a slow recovery, the institutions that are going to survive are those that embrace and nurture creativity within their organization.

Thille: At Carnegie Mellon, our research into the intersection of information technology and the science of learning to develop effective, open web-based learning environments has been an interdisciplinary and inter-university collaboration. We have made the courses we've developed open to have a practical impact on a serious problem. Our OER development is based on a constant research cycle: Research informs the design of the course, and the data collected through student use of the course fuel not only feedback to students, instructors, and course design teams but also additional research studies.

We are also exploring many different ways to expand options and make the use of such environments a positive development for all students. The Open Learning Initiative (OLI) technology allows faculty members to think differently about the range of offerings and experiences in higher education. A student might take one class in OLI "anytime, anywhere" mode, while taking another course the traditional way. One could imagine using OLI courses to complete a four-year degree program in three years. Or students' junior and senior year could incorporate diverse experiences--more hands-on research activities, community internships, or work for a startup company. Senior faculty could devote their time to mentoring or teaching capstone courses. These are just some of the possibilities.

Carson: Institutions need to think of this as an investment in an infrastructure that will pay dividends. Certainly we've seen that at MIT. If you think about all the money that's invested by a university in the educational content of its courses, the extra expense of publishing it on the web is almost negligible. But the benefit of exposing all that curriculum--not just to the rest of the world, but to your own academic community--is tremendous.

Most of our students use the MIT OpenCourseWare as an advising tool. Having our curriculum online has reduced the number of calls to our advisers by 30 percent. Think of all of the man-hours saved. Students coming into classes are better prepared because they've seen the materials. Students in advanced classes can go back and review introductory-level concepts from their freshman year. It's a tremendous resource for the MIT community--we had over 350,000 visits from the MIT domain to our site in the past year, so it's very heavily used by the MIT community. In relation to the benefit produced, I think the expense is quite small.

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