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Reflections on a decade of open sharing: Opening up OpenCourseWare

MIT will mark the 10-year anniversary of the announcement of OpenCourseWare in April 2011. To prepare for this milestone, the OCW staff has asked a number of MIT community members who've been involved in the project to reflect on its past and look to what lies ahead. In this, the first installment of an occasional series, Hal Abelson, Class of 1922 Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, discusses how OCW has changed the world.

MIT announced OpenCourseWare at the beginning of April 2001. It was a startling announcement — some people wondered whether it could be have been an April Fool’s Day hoax. April 2001 was still the time of the dot-com balloon, when university administrators were being told that selling curriculum over the Web could be a multimillion dollar cash cow. During planning that led up to OCW, MIT had more than a few offers from businesses eager to partner with us to sell our courses. The vision that one of the world’s top educational institutions intended to make all its course material freely available changed people’s thinking about the educational potential of the Web. It became a universal vision, and its very name — Open Educational Resources — derives from a UNESCO meeting on the Impact of Open Courseware for Higher Education in Developing Countries, a name adopted as an expression of the participants’ wish “to develop together a universal educational resource available for the whole of humanity.”

Ten years later, Open Educational Resources is a worldwide movement, with governments calling for open-access textbooks and open-access educational repositories, and more and more people enjoying the reality that educational resources can be freely available to everyone. This is a success that we could barely have hoped to achieve when OCW was born. Yet having made Open Educational Resources a reality has brought on real-world challenges.

How do we keep OpenCourseWare thriving? One way is to seek outside support from generous donors who share the vision that educational resources from the world’s foremost institutions cam be made freely available to everyone. That’s critical, but it can’t be the whole story. OCW can’t be viable in the long term if we regard it only as something we do for people “out there.” In addition, there’s enormous potential to use open educational resources “in here.”

Consider the opportunity around open sharing. At MIT, we faculty do very little sharing of materials among courses. We often don’t even know what our colleagues’ courses are about, much less rely on them or reuse resources from their courses. Isn’t it curious that in assigning class readings, an instructor is more likely to suggest to our students a review article from Wikipedia, than an assignment from a prerequisite subject? Perhaps it’s not so curious: our culture doesn’t support adapting a colleague’s course materials, the technical infrastructure doesn’t make it easy, there are few incentives from deans and departments to do so. More effective sharing of course materials within our institutions is a missed opportunity to enhance the coherence of the curriculum, stimulate synergy in teaching, maybe even to save some money.

Or consider independent learning. At MIT, we pay a lot of lip service to the notion that students should “learn to learn” and practice getting knowledge on their own. About half of all OCW users describe themselves as independent learners. But there are precious few academic programs, if any, where MIT students are asked to go through the OpenCourseWare material of a subject independently and demonstrate what they’ve learned.

When we created OCW a decade ago, people thought of the Web as a publishing vehicle, and we designed OCW with a publication model in mind. As we said then, OCW was meant to be a window into MIT for the world. But windows are for looking out as well as looking in, and the Web 1.0 publishing world was a long time ago. If there’s anything we’ve learned about the Web and openness, it’s that large-scale collaboration, small contributions from massive numbers of people, can lead to resources of outstanding scope and quality. Is it possible that setting up the same worldwide collaborative dynamic around OCW materials — opening up OpenCourseWare — could bring our course materials, and even our courses, to new heights in quality?

We started OpenCourseWare with the intent to reach out, and we did. But the opportunity now is the opportunity to reach in, to exploit the power of what we’ve done to make our own institutions and our own educational programs even greater. We have to do that for OpenCourseWare to continue to thrive. I’d argue, that we need to do for our institutions to continue to thrive as well.

We’ve changed the world by making OpenCourseWare. Now let’s live in that changed world.

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