ITOE: Comparing Two OpenCourseWare Styles

It’s week three, and the course continues to elide the distinction between open education and open educational resources. That’s a shame because there’s a real opportunity to explore the differences in goals in the current assignment:

Carefully review five (5) random courses from MIT OCW ( and five (5) random courses from CMU OLI ( Write a post on the different ideals of quality expressed in the differing course designs; describe how you feel the different designs reflect on the different universities.

I tried to sample courses across disciplines but also to pick courses (when possible) where I had some basic knowledge of, or at least interest in, the content. For MIT, I chose 4.001J / 11.004J CityScope: New Orleans11.126J / 14.48J / 11.249 Economics of Education21H.001 How to Stage a Revolution, 24.09 Minds and Machines, and 8.02 Physics II: Electricity and Magnetism. (I wanted to get at least one lab course in each batch.) For Carnegie Mellon, I chose Physics With the Andes Workbench, Empirical Research Methods, Causal and Statistical Reasoning, Elementary French I, and Experiments with Economics. The range of choices in the CMU catalog was dramatically smaller than MIT’s; there were only about a dozen choices. 

The MIT OCW is consistent with the line the university established when first publicizing the initiative, i.e., that the heart of the MIT education is the conversation that happens in the classroom. For example, we see something like this in the Economics of Education syllabus:

Class Participation (Three Kinds)

An education course is a good place to try to improve your education. In particular, I want you to engage with the material and minimize “chalk and talk” where I do all the talking and you sit in your seats taking notes, doing email, etc. We are going to institute two or three procedures to help push in this direction:

  • On the first day of class, we will decide whether we will choose one student each day to take class notes. If we adopt this system, the notes will then be distributed electronically to other students in the class. This should allow other students to focus more on class discussion. No student will be asked to do the notes for more than one class and a student who takes notes will be exempt from questions for the next class (see below).
  • Beginning with the second class, each student should bring to class two good questions they have developed about that day’s readings. Students will hand in the questions at the beginning of class and the first part of each class will involve me calling on four or five students and using their questions to begin the day’s discussion. I will grade each pair of questions as Exceptional, Satisfactory, or Unsatisfactory. When a student cannot attend class, they should email their questions to me on the morning of the class.
  • Policy debates to be held in section. Many issues we discuss involve significant controversy – e.g. the effect of increased spending or school choice on student achievement. To clarify these issues, we will hold a series of 25 minute student debates in Friday sections. Students will sign up in advance and we will try to give every student the opportunity to participate.

In this course design, the students decide together what is interesting and worth exploring about the content, with the professor (presumably) helping them to learn to ask more penetrating questions. The course materials exist to spur the creation of socially created framework of understanding.

In contrast, the Carnegie Mellon courses are clearly intended to be complete educational experiences without the facilitation of an instructor or even conversation with classmates. For example, here’s an excerpt from the Introduction to the Causal and Statistical Reasoning course:

The Causality Lab is a virtual environment to simulate the science of causal discovery. The lab contains a “true” causal model behind the scenes that was created by the instructor (or another student), and your job is to set-up experiments, collect data, create hypotheses, and compare the predicitons from your hypotheses against the data to find the truth. Causality Lab exercises are included as a regular part of the course, but they are also available as a series of stand alone lessons accessible from the Syllabus in Unit 7: Causality Lab Lessons….

In our experience, actually doing these exercises is very closely related to how well students do in the course. Is the relationship causal? We don’t know for sure – but we believe it is. We believe that by choosing to do the interactive exercises and the questions embedded in each section seriously, whether your professor requires them or not, you will cause your grade to go up substantially. Obviously at times you will be tempted to skip them or just go through the motions. Don’t. If you are tired or distracted or bored, take a break and do something else. That is the big advantage of online learning – you can do it for as long or as short as you like, as many times as you like as often as you like. If you want to work with a friend, by all means do so. Whatever it takes, find a way to do the exercises. They are designed to get you to actively engage the material and help you learn by doing, and we have good evidence to show that they work.

This is a much more obviously cognitivist framework, supporting the solitary learner building her knowledge and intellectual skills by working through carefully constructed interactive problem sets. Some of this is due to the difference in content between the two courses I’m highlighting here, but less than you might think. The OLI Project Overview states that “the project adds to online education the crucial elements of instructional design grounded in cognitive theory, formative evaluation for students and faculty, and iterative course improvement based on empirical evidence.” MIT’s OCW exists to provide the structure for instructor-facilitated social learning experiences around particular topics, with varying amounts of cognitive scaffolding, depending on the course. CMU’s OCW exists primarily to provide cognitive scaffolding designed to advance the students’ disciplinary skills whether or not there is an organized (or even disorganized) class experience. The branding implications are that MIT appears to provide you with high quality adventure learning experiences on a wide range of really interesting topics, while CMU appears to teach you how to turn your brain into a highly versatile power tool. 

There are significant implications for open education in these contrasting approaches. The MIT courses are very tightly constructed around facilitated classroom experiences. In many cases the courses require lab equipment or field trips, and most seem to emphasize regular and relatively formalized class discussion activities. While the content has some value for solo study, the real juice comes from the organized group. Therefore MIT OCW is potentially very useful for providing curriculum for traditional university instruction but not nearly as useful for non-traditional open education approaches. CMU’s OCW, on the other hand, is very well suited to self-study and use in loosely organized, informal study groups that typify current-generation open education efforts. The physics labs are virtual, for example, so they can be done without the trappings of a university. But the courses seem to vary greatly in terms of the amount of instructor-focused material provided to situate them in the context of a traditional instructor-facilitated college course.

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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2 Responses to ITOE: Comparing Two OpenCourseWare Styles

  1. David Wiley says:

    They’re really target at very different user groups who will want to make very different uses of them. As you say, it’s really not possible to judge them “generally” or “globally” in comparison to each other, but helping people figure that out was one of the main goals of this assignment. =)

  2. SaraJoy Pond says:

    I like this line: “The branding implications are that MIT appears to provide you with high quality adventure learning experiences on a wide range of really interesting topics, while CMU appears to teach you how to turn your brain into a highly versatile power tool.” But I think (and you also bring this out) that it’s important to note that MIT OCW doesn’t provide, or even claim to provide, that high-quality adventure learning experience. You still have to pay $50K/year for that. I don’t know that anyone’s evaluated whether OLI is actually transforming brains into 10-in-one power tools or not… Seems like an important question to address.

    @David: You said in class today that MIT is targeted for instructors/educators. Its structure and content organization would definitely support the proposition–but less than 1/4 of its users are educators… a commercial enterprise would either have to change its market strategy or change its product…and fast.

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