OpenFiction [Blog]

Another (less profound) transition

Posted in MIT OpenCourseWare, open education, OpenCourseWare, OpenCourseWare Consortium by scarsonmsm on March 4, 2014

As I move to a new professional chapter in my life, I am also moving to a new blogging home, and retiring OpenFiction.  Please follow my (probably occasional) bloggings about my new professional efforts on my new blog.

A professional transition

With profound gratitude for the opportunities I’ve been given at MIT, I want to share that I have accepted a new position as Operations Director for the OPENPediatrics program at Boston Children’s Hospital.  My last day at MIT will be March 31st.

I’ve always felt that my work at OCW might be a once in a lifetime opportunity to make a profound difference in the lives of people worldwide, and I am humbled to have found another opportunity to have such an impact.  Every year, more than 10 million children die of preventable causes, and OPENPediatrics ( seeks to address this challenge using the principles of open sharing and scalable education that animate OCW and MITx to improve the care of critically ill children on a global scale.

While I am excited by this new opportunity, I am sad to part ways with the many friends and colleagues who mean so much to me.  I will spend much of the next few years wondering (and maybe occasionally even asking) how the ODL and OCWC teams would have handled situations I will face.

I’m also sad to be unable to join my MIT colleagues in the engaging work that awaits ODL in the next few years.  Amid the uncertainty of the shifting higher education landscape and the organizational changes at MIT, I have total confidence in the amazing people brought together under the ODL banner.  I have no doubt that they will all do as they have always done–transform the way we think about the intersection of education and digital technologies, and how it can be used to make ours a better world.

I’m optimistic my new position will allow me to remain engaged in the open education community, and will regardless keep in touch with my friends at MIT and the OCWC.  Thank you again to the friends and colleagues who have made my work at OCW, the OCW Consortium, and the Office of Digital Learning such a wonderful experience.

Please help us support pediatric cancer research

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on July 29, 2013

As many of you know, my son Daniel is a cancer survivor.  He was diagnosed with a kidney tumor at the age of 2 1/2, underwent surgery to remove the kidney and was treated with chemotherapy for 18 months at the Dana Farber Jimmy Fund Clinic.  In large part due to the wonderful care he received at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Jimmy Fund Clinic, he completed all of his treatments without a single complication.  This month, he had his final follow-up appointment, and is now looking forward to a normal, healthy life.

This year, as we’ve done several years since his treatment, our family is walking in the annual Jimmy Fund Walk to ensure that more children will receive the same amazing care that Daniel received.  While we were grateful to take him to his final appointment, we once again saw the shock and anguish of the families of children new to the clinic.  With your help, we can ensure that more of these families have stories to share like ours.

Please donate at:


Steve, Lori, Olivia and Daniel

PS – If you’d like to walk with our team, please let me know.  All are welcome.1048920_23713185421968

NextGenU launch

Posted in open education, Open Educational Resources by scarsonmsm on April 8, 2013

One of the projects I have been advising, NextGenU, just launched globally.  My congratulations to the team!  Here is the press release:

World’s First Free, For Credit, University-Level Training Portal Launches launches globally for World Health Day (April 7) with three courses:
Emergency Medicine, Environmental Health, and Climate Change and Health

Vancouver, BC – Doctors, healthcare experts, students, and researchers around the globe will
celebrate World Health Day (April 7) early with today’s launch of, the world’s first
free online portal, where anyone, anywhere in the world can access university- and graduate-level
courses for interest or for credit through accredited institutions and organizations. NextGenU is
offering three medical/public health and environmental courses, and is poised to grow full schools of public health and medicine.

“We launched our Emergency Medicine course in March 2012. Our pilot testing shows identical exam
results to traditionally-trained U.S. medical students, with many students preferring our distributed teaching model,” says Erica Frank, MD, MPH, Founder, President, and Executive Director ofNextGenU. “We decided to launch globally around World Health Day, since our first three course
offerings address health, and we already have health sciences students enrolled from 54 countries.”
Dr. George Lundberg, former Editor of JAMA and of Medscape, says, “NextGenU’s model presents
the next great frontier for globally democratizing higher learning, a huge leap forward for education, equity, and health – this unique approach could save countless lives worldwide.”

The World Health Organization states that the world needs over 4 million additional healthcare
providers, particularly in developing countries. Serious global educational resource constraints and remarkable open courseware opportunities mean that heavy use of computer-assisted technology is
required to train these health providers. NextGenU brings top-notch training materials to the
computers of individuals, post-secondary institutions, and other organizations that may not otherwise have the resources to access or provide these trainings.

“With NextGenU, for the first time, healthcare professionals in every corner of the world will have
equal access to first-class learning resources, without economics or geography providing a barrier,” says Dr. Frank. “This truly democratizes advanced education by offering world-class resources to everyone, regardless of place or circumstance.”

NextGenU collaborates with leading accredited universities, professional societies, and government
co-sponsors, as well as funders, including Grand Challenges Canada, the U.S. Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization. All courses are competency-based, and
include knowledge transfer through online, expert-created, and expert-certified resources, along with guided opportunities to observe and practice skills with local mentors and a web-based global peer community of practice.

NextGenU opens a new era of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs); while anyone anywhere can
audit classes offered by other MOOCs for interest’s sake, NextGenU is the first site committed to
providing university, graduate-, and professional-level courses for credit and for free. NextGenU’s
uniquely-accredited MOOC model builds on the common practice in medical and public health
schools of students receiving credit at their home institutions for courses and clinical clerkships taken elsewhere.

Lindsay Galway’s public health students are using NextGenU’s Environmental Health course this
semester for their learning platform at Canada’s Simon Fraser University. She reports that “with this type of expert-created, competency-based curriculum, we’re able to provide the world’s best resources to our students for their reading, listening, and viewing.”

Dr. Carolina Segura, MD, Course Creator and Principal Researcher for NextGenU’s Physical Activity
and Health course pilot in Colombia, says, “Our students think NextGenU’s method is genius. Many
can’t afford even the least expensive tuition, nor to leave their homes and jobs. NextGenU allows our scarce teachers and mentors to leave knowledge transfer to online learning, saving their time to provide the kind of skills training for the courses that can only happen in person.”

It should be noted that, in addition to being free of cost and other common barriers, like geography and time scheduling, NextGenU is advertisement-free and carbon-free, using wind-powered servers and carbon offsets purchased for other organizational greenhouse gas emissions.
NextGenU currently offers courses in Emergency Medicine, Environmental Health, and Climate
Change and Health, and most course materials and activities are available in 64 languages through
Google Translate’s integration into the Moodle platform. More than 130 additional courses, covering a broad range of topics, are currently in development, and NextGenU’s educational potential is infinite.

About NextGenU’s Founder

Dr. Erica Frank, Founder, President and Executive Director of, is a Professor and
Canada Research Chair at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public
Health, in UBC’s Faculty of Medicine. Dr. Frank received her post-graduate education at Stanford (3-year NIH/NHLBI Prevention Fellowship), Yale (Preventive Medicine Residency), and the Cleveland
Clinic (Internship). NextGenU’s global team began in 2001.

Media contacts:

• Erica Frank, MD, MPH, President,, 604 724-5175 (cell)
• Ann Hulton, Chief Technologist,
• Kate Tairyan, MD, MPH, Director of Public Health,
• Michelle Wruck, COO,

Maybe not the lead they wanted for the first Coursera Partners conference

Posted in MOOC, open education, sustainability by scarsonmsm on April 5, 2013

Coursera debates future of monetization – The Daily Pennsylvanian

Reports from the actual event indicate the discussion is really not centered on monetization, but the article sure is:

“I think the excitement surrounding this conference, and around Coursera in general, shows that the profits will come, even if they may not have come yet,” said Law School professor Edward Rock, who serves as Penn’s director of open course initiatives. “When you have a product like these courses that represents an increase in quality and a reduction in cost, it’s bound to make money.”


At Penn, Rock said, about 60 percent of revenue earned from individual courses goes directly to faculty members.

“If a course turns out to be a bestseller, there will be significant revenues that flow to faculty members,” he added. “It’s something that professors think about and care about, because they’re putting a huge amount of time into developing these courses.”


“If you look at similar ventures, the same questions came up there. How’s Google going to get money from searches, how’s Facebook going to get money from hitting a like button?” [Penn mathematics and engineering professor Robert Ghrist] said. “Once you have an interested customer base, then you have something to work with.”

Read the full article.

This I did not know: Udacity available under open license

Posted in intellectual property, MOOC, open education, Open Educational Resources by scarsonmsm on April 5, 2013

From the Udacity Legal page:

Udacity hereby grants you a license in and to the Educational Content under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License ( and successor locations for such license) (the “CC License”), provided that, in each case, the Educational Content is specifically marked as being subject to the CC License. As used herein, “Educational Content” means the educational materials made available to you through the Online Courses, including such on-line lectures, speeches, video lessons, quizzes, presentation materials, homework assignments, programming assignments, code samples, and other educational materials and tools, but, in any event, specifically excluding any Secure Testing Materials. Such Educational Content will be considered the “Work” under the terms of the CC License. “Secure Testing Materials” refers to any exams or other testing materials that are used for certification purposes.

Not sure how I missed that.  The ND is limiting and raises many questions, but hey, it’s a step in the right direction.

A hima for educational and cultural materials?

Posted in intellectual property, open access, open education, Open Educational Resources by scarsonmsm on March 28, 2013

I am always interested in ways that the concept of sharing common resources (like open educational resources) does (and does not) translate across cultures.  Especially with the recent work we’ve done in supporting the Open Book Project, I was intrigued to come across this piece on the tradition of a physical commons in Arabic cultures:

There was an ancient Middle Eastern tradition of setting aside certain lands, called hima (“protected place” in Arabic), for the enjoyment of local chieftains. Muhammad “transformed the hima from a private enclave into a public asset in which all community members had a share and a stake, in accordance with their duty as stewards (khalifa) of God’s natural world,” according to Tom Verde, a scholar of Islamic studies and Christian-Muslim relations.

In the seventh century, Muhammad declared the region of Al-Madinah, now the holy city of Medina, “to be a sanctuary; its trees shall not be cut and its game shall not be hunted.” Many of the hima lasted well into the 20th century, when the tradition fell victim to modern beliefs about land ownership.

This echos for me the important role that Arabic cultures played in preserving knowledge throughout the dark ages.  I like the idea of a cultural and educational hima in which we all have “a share and a stake”—both access to and responsibility for a vibrant common resource that benefits all.

More awful AT&T service

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on March 4, 2013

Never fails to amaze me how truly bad AT&Ts approach to customer service really is. Was talking with a coworker the other day, and he mentioned signing up for MIT’s discount with AT&T. I realized from the discussion I hadn’t seen a discount on my bill for quite some time–long enough that I thought perhaps I’d even failed to ever sign up.

Went to the website to sign up, filled out the forms, and got an e-mail back saying they had a previous application for discount on file, so no change would be made. I contacted MITs AT&T rep and was told a) they will only credit back six months (alright, kind of cheap for their mistake, but I should have caught it), and b) I had to produce proof of the previous application that they already told me they have a record of.

Contrast that to a similar experience I had with USAA, a company I absolutely love. Discovered I was overpaying on my insurance bill and contacted them. They refunded the full two years of the discrepancy on the spot. My eight year old son is already asking me if he’ll be able to use USAA when he gets older. My eight year old.

If the AT&T rep had said, tell you what, you’ve been our customer for 15 years–our mistake, we’ll give you back six months worth of the discount, I wouldn’t be pissed enough to be spending my time writing this. For a couple of hundred bucks in charges they made in error, AT&T has bought a whole different impression on my kids and future potential customers.

Why the “open” in MOOC matters

Posted in Evaluation, Mechanical MOOC, MIT OpenCourseWare, MOOC, open education by scarsonmsm on March 4, 2013

Jeff Young has a great piece in the Chronicle of Higher Ed today about what he calls the “bandwidth divide” and how most MOOCs require learners to have persistent high-speed internet access.  When we created the Mechanical MOOC course, we built it on existing open resources mostly because we though it was the most efficient and cost effective way to do it–by leveraging the investments already made in creating MIT OpenCourseWare, OpenStudy and Codecademy.

We realized very quickly that a lot of additional flexibility came with leveraging these resources.  Because they were from mature projects focused on openly sharing their resources and functionality, they had developed alternate modes of delivery to address bandwidth issues:

  • the 6.189 course used an open textbook that was downloadable
  • the 6.189 course materials (assignments, notes) themselves could be downloaded in a single zip file
  • the 6.00SC videos used were downloadable from iTunes U and the Internet Archive
  • OpenStudy was launching a beta mobile interface just as the course kicked off

And our learners downloaded the materials is large numbers:

Screen Shot 2013-03-04 at 7.53.26 AM

Beyond that, we were able to also leverage the deep investments made in translating these open resources.  The text is available in a dozen languages, and the course materials have been translated into Chinese.  By building our course on open resources, we saved money and leveraged the work that these projects have already put into reaching audiences working without persistent internet or in other languages.  A win-win-win.

Who really cares about MOOC completion?

Posted in Evaluation, Mechanical MOOC, MOOC by scarsonmsm on February 28, 2013

This is a really interesting graphic on MOOC completion, showing rates ranging from 20% to 2%.  The data points the researcher (Katy Jordan at OU UK) pulls out are:

  • How big is the typical MOOC? – while an enrollment of 180,000 is often cited as the largest MOOC so far, 50,000 students enrolled is a much more typical MOOC size.
  • How many students complete courses? – completion rates can approach 20%, although most MOOCs have completion rates of less than 10%.
  • What factors might affect completion rate? – the way that the course is assessed may affect completion rates; the completion rates of courses which use automatic grading range from 4.6% to 19.2%, while the rates for courses which use peer grading range form 0.7% to 10.7%. This may present a greater challenge for teaching MOOCs in certain subjects.
  • Do more students drop out if courses are longer? – there does not appear to be a negative correlation between course length and completion rate, which is interesting as you might expect fewer students to ‘keep going’ and complete longer courses.

It’s great to see some data on completion rates, and this will certainly stir up more debate on the topic.

But one issue not addressed in the current discussion is who really cares about MOOC completion?  Certainly the groups offering them do, and educational researchers do.  A fair guess that many non-profit funders do as well.  Interestingly, though, some of the data coming out of the Mechanical MOOC Python course suggest that in the absence of extrinsic carrots like credit or certificates, learners may not.

In the eighth and final week of the class, we asked the 5,775 learners who signed up for the first iteration of the Python course a series of end of course questions; we received 21 partial and 61 complete responses. Assuming a survey completion rate of 3% (typical of what we see for MIT OCW surveys) and 5% (really good for an OCW survey) that would suggest a rough engaged population of learners (that is, still reading the e-mails we were sending out to structure the course) of between 2,733 and 1,640 people during the last week of the course.*

One question asked which was the last week of the course out of the eight they had completed.  Here’s the response:

MechMOOC Week complete

At the point of the survey, midway through the eighth week, 12.1% indicated they had completed the course and 13.8% had completed week 7.  If we assume 25% attrition from those that completed week 7, maybe 10.4% of the 13.8% would be expected to finish the course.  So in very rough numbers, 20.5% of the survey respondents might be expected to finish.

Apply that number to the estimated engaged population of learners above, and we can get very rough numbers of estimated completers:  560 – 336, or 9.7% – 5.8%. or somewhere in the mid to low range of MOOC out there, which might be expected, since we weren’t offering a certificate or other incentive for finishing.  Now there are plenty of places to take issue with the above numbers, and since our course set up doesn’t have a solid way of counting course completers, this really should be taken for the back-of-the-envelope analysis it is.  But…

What is really interesting to me here is the distribution of learners across the weeks completed.  There is a large cohort of students (68.9% of respondents) that reports most recently completing weeks 4-7, which is to say they progressed significantly through the course but most of them were not positioned to finish the course “on schedule.”

How do they feel about this?  Apparently pretty good.  Granted the n’s are painfully small here, but if you ask how successful they felt they were in the portions of the class they completed, most report being completely or mostly successful:

Success by week

Further, if you ask whether they feel prepared for further study based on what they had learned so far in the class, they likewise responded largely that they were very or somewhat prepared:


The data’s a little thin, yes, but this would seem to at least suggest that while MOOC providers and higher education commentators wring their hands about the completion rates of MOOC, the learners may not really care that much.  If they are learning for the sake of learning, they may be quite content to fit in what learning they can given the constraints of their lives and be happy with wherever they finish up.

There’s a great deal of excitement (and fear) over whether MOOCs will replace parts of the current higher education system, but right now I suspect most of the activity with MOOCs (as has been the case with OER more generally) is in extending educational opportunity beyond the current higher education system.  If this is the case, we may need some better metric for understanding student success and satisfaction than completion rate.

* Correlating data point:  The week 8 assignment e-mail recorded 1,929 opens through our e-mail system.