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MIT OpenCourseWare introduces courses designed for independent learners

A screenshot from OCW Scholar.
A screenshot from OCW Scholar.

For the first time, MIT OpenCourseWare is introducing courses designed to serve the needs of independent learners, visitors to the site who have no affiliation with academic institutions. These "OCW Scholar" courses address a need the MIT faculty never envisioned in 2000 when the idea for OCW was first conceived. At that time, the expectation was that other educators would use the syllabi, lecture notes, assignments and exams from MIT courses to design their own courses. But in this first decade of MIT OpenCourseWare, independent learners have emerged as the primary users of these materials.

"First and foremost, we are trying to make these materials as complete as possible," says OCW Publication Director Daniel Carchidi, who oversees the team creating the OCW Scholar courses. "We hope independent learners can use these materials without any additional outside resources such as texts or journal articles."

Because the original OCW model was designed to support faculty, many courses in the current publication include partial selections of course materials or references to outside texts. It was assumed that visitors to the site could supplement these materials through academic libraries and other resources; often this is not the case for the millions of independent learners visiting the site. To ensure the completeness of OCW Scholar courses, the OCW team has combined materials from multiple MIT courses and worked with MIT faculty and teaching assistants to create new materials specifically for OCW Scholar publication.

Current OCW course materials are also arranged by materials type, with lecture notes in one section, assignments in another and exams in a third. This structure works well for faculty seeking to reuse particular types of content, but makes it difficult for independent learners to put together all of the materials from the course according to the logical sequence that facilitates independent study. OCW Scholar courses address this issue by presenting materials in study units.

Each course was crafted by MIT faculty to provide a clear, linear approach to help students successfully learn the subject matter," says Haynes Miller, an MIT professor of mathematics and MacVicar Faculty Fellow participating in the design of one of the first OCW Scholar courses. "OCW Scholar courses represent a substantial rethinking of the OCW approach."

With the support of the Stanton Foundation, OCW will publish 20 OCW Scholar courses in the next three years, all focused on introductory college-level science, mathematics, engineering and other foundational subjects. The first OCW Scholar courses to be released will be: 8.01SC Physics I, 8.02SC Physics II, 18.01SC Calculus I, 18.02SC Calculus II and 3.091SC Introduction to Solid State Chemistry. These courses are OCW's first attempt at this new approach, and OCW will actively seek user feedback on each of them.

8.01SC Physics I provides a good example of the OCW Scholar approach. The course includes 11 topical modules, including modules on translational kinematics; force and Newton's Laws of Motion; circular motion; conservation of energy; momentum; and rotation and translation. Each module includes learning objectives, preparatory activities, "in-class" activities, assessments and related resources. These elements provide additional structure for independent learners, guiding them through the content and allowing them to assess their own progress. The course incorporates selections from OCW's very popular video lectures by MIT physics professor Walter Lewin.

Building on a solid foundation

While OCW Scholar courses represent a new approach to OCW publication, they complement the regular OCW publication but do not replace it. Because the OCW Scholar courses require faculty to create new content, they involve significantly more effort than the basic OCW approach. "We're still committed to publishing MIT's materials as we always have," says OCW Executive Director Cecilia d'Oliveira, "and our core publication continues to provide tremendous value to educators and students around the world. With OCW Scholar, we are enhancing our support for independent learners and building on what we've accomplished with the rest of the site."

The OCW team will continue to publish new and updated versions of materials drawn directly from MIT classrooms to support the broad international audience that already benefits from OCW. Last year alone, OCW received 17.5 million visits from 9.5 million individuals, and to date the site has been visited more than 75 million times by an estimated 45 million individuals. OCW content on affiliate and translation sites has been viewed by millions more. This dramatic success provides a solid foundation for innovations such as OCW Scholar.

Creating a scalable resource

One of the keys to the success of OCW is its scalability: an almost unlimited number of people can access OCW resources at a very small incremental cost. This has allowed an enormous number of users to benefit from the resources on the site in a wide variety of ways. Educators use the site for curriculum and course development and as a reference for their students. Students around the world use the site to supplement materials they receive in their own classes and as a tool to support course selection and program selection.

Independent learners have also come to the site in very large numbers. While not all courses on OCW contain enough content to support independent learners, those courses that do have rich resources such as video lectures and digital textbooks attract large audiences. The most visited video courses on OCW currently receive more that 70,000 visitors each month.

"When we first launched OCW, the number of independent learners using the site was a big surprise to us. They were 40 to 50 percent of our visitors," says Professor Shigeru Miyagawa, OWC's Faculty Advisory Committee Chair. "The site was originally envisioned as a set of resources for other educators to use in their classrooms. We didn't consider OCW a distance-learning program — and we still don't — but we do feel we identified an unmet demand for independent learning opportunities, and that's what OCW Scholar seeks to address."

OCW Scholar is not a distance-learning program, but rather educational materials provided for free without the support of an instructor or teaching assistant. The trade-off for this content-based approach without interaction is that OCW Scholar can be used by a very large audience for only the cost of digital distribution. "We're hoping to create a truly scalable resource," says Carchidi. "These courses aren't intended to be the equivalent of classroom-based learning, or even distance learning, but they are scalable in a way that those learning opportunities are not."

Connecting with other learners

Another recently launched OCW initiative is being combined with OCW Scholar courses to provide a level of interactivity. Last September, OCW began a pilot collaboration with to pair study groups with OCW courses. OpenStudy groups allow users of the OCW materials to connect with and support one another as they learn. The study group for 6.00 Introduction to Computer Science and Programming has attracted more than 5,000 participants in four months, a group for 18.01 Single Variable Calculus has more than 4,000 members, and all of the groups so far have participants numbering in the hundreds.

To date, the pairing of study groups with OCW courses has been done with a very loose integration: a single link from the course on OCW to the OpenStudy group. For OCW Scholar courses, the OCW team is developing more robust approach to linking that will help students working on the same materials within the courses to connect more effectively.

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