Archive for March 23rd, 2006

Mac Monkey

Thursday, March 23rd, 2006

You see, they do exist…

Closed minds to online learning

Thursday, March 23rd, 2006

One of the reasons online learning hasn’t taken off is made clear every time I sit in a meeting about it, or have a discussion with reluctant colleagues: intellectual property. People fear that putting their course notes online will in some way diminish them, or lead to people stealing their thoughts.

To me, that’s a little like believing that a photograph steals a little bit of your soul (though I think some supermodels are quite good evidence that this particular myth has some element of truth). I wonder how this argument holds up when applied to books and articles? What is it about computer screens that makes them different?
I also get suspicious of any academic who thinks that sharing knowledge is a bad thing. I have visions of these people giving students handouts that fade after 24 hours so they can’t be peddled on the internet, or make them sign a non-disclosure agreement. Why not just tie a bit of elastic to them and have done?

Another issue that arises in art and design in particular is the claim that these subjects cannot be taught online. So again, how do you account for the massive section in Borders that’s full of books showing people how to print, produce layouts, prime canvases and so on? It demonstrates not only a lack of imagination (ironic considering the subject we’re talking about) but a bizarre laziness in a refusal to put students’ (and society’s) needs before our own.

A couple of years ago I wrote an article for the Times Higher Educational Supplement and asked some students what they’d like to see online. Apart from wondering why their tutors were so far behind the times as not to even offer timetables and briefs online, or to use email to tell them of cancelled sessions instead of putting a notice on a locked door (great if you’ve just travelled for an hour on the train), several ideas were immediately offered that would be a doddle to set up: information on placements, experiences of past students and a way of keeping in touch with tutors and friends while away from uni for a few weeks.
I checked up again recently and found that their successors were still asking for, and still not being offered, exactly the same things.

In that article I focussed on a third reason why art and design in particular is slow to utilise new technology – every single discussion gets bogged down on what things should look like rather than what they should do. Without fail, people start talking about 3D animations, Flash intros and interactivity, but never about content. Yet look at the sites that students use day in day out and you’ll notice they are content-rich and visually unappealing. That’s because the internet is a socially-based medium, not a visually-based one. We just don’t get it.

Universities exist to share knowledge, and that includes going beyond the university population. Staggeringly few higher education institutions in the UK offer public lectures or tell the local community they’re welcome to come along and hear world-renowned experts talk about current issues. I listened to some of the Harvard podcasts on iTunes recently with a mixture of awe and envy. Why aren’t we doing that? Why do we moan about the dumbing down of society and do little to contribute to counter it?

I found a brief mention of MIT’s efforts in the area of online learning today. If you ever hear an academic tell you that putting what they know online will be the end of knowledge, point them to this:

How MIT’s Open CourseWare is growing:

We love to talk about the Massachusettes Institute of Technology’s Open CourseWare project because it’s a big idea meant to change the world. And change-the-world ideas inspire evangelism.

If you’re not familiar with Open Courseware, back in 2001 MIT decided to make its entire curriculum — 1,800 undergrad and graduate courses — freely available on the Internet. That’s a $104,000 value to a degreed student.

Why would one of the world’s top learning institutions give away its intellectual property?

Because an institute committee tasked with studying the impact of the Internet in 1999 decided that the best way to advance an MIT-style education would be to widen access to information. By making access free, the widening of access would spread exponentially via word of mouth through multiple networks. An education virus, if you will.

Anne Margulies, who is the project’s director, told an audience in Missouri last month that MIT has learned quite a lot by making its professors’ course work freely available. Andy Carvin recorded her presentation and uploaded it to his blog as an MP3 file; I have compiled notes from listening to Andy’s recording.

How it works

* MIT ‘publishes’ course materials twice per year, and 300 courses arrive in each publication; 1,265 courses are currently available.

* Each faculty member decides on the amount of content to share;
Margulies says her group finds it difficult to keep up with the growing
levels of content shared by faculty.

How it’s used

* 80% of courses contain professors’ lecture notes, which users say they value the most.

* The course materials have been voluntarily translated into 15 languages.

* More than one million people visit the Open Courseware site every month.

*’ Educators from other institutions report they are using MIT’s accessible courses as benchmarks and standards against which to measure their own courses.

* It’s brought faculty closer: Two, 30-year MIT faculty members had never
met nor were they aware they were teaching work that was similar until the Courseware project led them to discover one another.

How it’s valued

* MIT alumni hated the Open Courseware idea initially because they thought it would devalue their degree; that resistance changed because the project allows them free access to continuing education.

* Students who enroll formally at MIT are saying that Open Courseware was what first attracted them to the institution and gave them an idea of what to expect in intellectual rigor and homework. In other words, it turns out to be a great try-before-you-buy program.

One of the less-quantifiable aspects of MIT’s project is the unprecedented expressions of enthusiasm of its fans. Indeed, Margulies says ‘It’s truly overwhelming to receive the amount of fan mail we receive every day (over 10,000 emails so far). Some 90 percent of the email we receive is to thank us for sharing MIT’s content… and we respond to every single message.’

Anything of significant value, like MIT’s intellectual property, is certain to spread quickly, especially if given away freely. In a future post, I’ll explore ideas how businesses can apply the principles underlying Open Courseware as a marketing strategy.

(Via Church of the Customer Blog.)