In thinking about the audience for OCW, we’ve always talked about educators, students and self learners, and made the explicit assumption that educators need the least support in using the materials, students need a little more support and self learners needed the most. By support I’m talking about features above and beyond the standard vanilla OCW static publication of raw materials. Mostly, these features are the bulletin boards, forums and other peer-to-peer communication systems intended to provided access to a (presumably absent) community of learners.
I’ve been wondering recently how much water this really holds, at least in some circumstances. There’s no doubt that there are potential learners out there who lack any kind of learning community, and that technology can be developed to support these learners. But it occurred to me recently that for a great many of those we think of as self learners, they probably are connected to fairly stable and supportive “learning communities,” be they professional associations, peer groups in the workplace or connections to colleagues at other organizations.
In part this is just an intuitive sense based on personal experience–I’ve certainly learned more informally since I got out of school than I did in school, and much of this learning has been supported by my work environment (both at Emerson and MIT). I realize it’s possible that my work experience has been an exception, but as businesses are depending more and more on the lifelong learning skills of their employees, more and more are facilitating informal learning in a range of ways.
In some ways, it seems that faculty may be the ones most able to take advantage of additional support features, especially in cutting-edge fields where there are few, widely dispersed experts. We’ve come across a number of such online communities recently, where faculty with common interests at different institutions have created their own virtual environments for collaboration. One interesting direction to look in terms of supporting use of OCW materials is to develop a generic version of of this type of faculty collaboration software, so that each community doesn’t have to roll their own.
At the highest level, though, we need to think a little more carefully about audiences and their needs, as our intuitive sense may be misleading.