OpenFiction [Blog]

OCW: Bigger than a breadbox

Posted in Evaluation, MIT OpenCourseWare, OpenCourseWare by scarsonmsm on September 15, 2009

With the help of a dedicated student, we’ve just caught up with our inventory of the content on the MIT OpenCourseWare site, and we can definitively say it’s bigger than a breadbox:

1,935 courses =

17,531 lecture notes

1,310 labs

9,460 assignments
2,359 assignment solutions

705 projects
283 project solutions

980 exams
467 exam solutions

On student use

Posted in Evaluation, MIT OpenCourseWare, OpenCourseWare by scarsonmsm on September 14, 2009

Some additional context around the issue of student use of MIT OpenCourseWare.  I happen to have had to pull together a basic profile of student use, the substance of which is included below.  In addition to being as big a user group as independent learners, students also come to the site with greater frequency and tend to have a longer history of coming to the site.

Table 4 is interesting on a number of fronts. The question was “What three types of content were most useful to you in completing the task for which you came to the site today?”  It highlights the value of video (keep in mind that only 30 of 1930+ courses have video lectures) and it also shows the value of the text-based content as well.  In particular, assignment and exam solutions are interesting in that they illustrate the value to students of being able to self-assess.  All of this materials data needs to be viewed in the light of production cost as well, with video still being (for us anyway) significantly more costly to produce.



Students are 42% of our visitors, with students accounting for 50-58% of total audience in the developing regions of East Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

Table 1

Students visit with greater frequency than other visitor types.
– 62% of returning students report visiting the site daily or weekly (Self learners – 49%; Educators – 39%)

Retuning students have made more prior visits than other roles.

– 39% of retuning students have made 25 or more prior visits to the site (Self learners – 32%; Educators – 32%)

Student use internationally is predominantly at the undergraduate level.

Table 2

Students use the site primarily to enhance personal knowledge and complement courses they are taking and enjoy high rates of success in doing so.

Table 3

Across all scenarios, students value video lectures, lecture notes, assignments and solutions, and exams and solutions, and animations/simulations.

Table 4

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Just another day at the zoo…

Posted in MIT OpenCourseWare, Personal by scarsonmsm on September 11, 2009

What I taped on the glass door of my office the other day during a conference call:

Do not tap on glass

What I found there the next morning:


The cat’s meow

Posted in fiction, the OpenFiction Project, writing exercise by scarsonmsm on September 10, 2009
The cat mug

The cat mug

A great piece of writing and an interesting project.  The piece of writing is by my good friend, Thomas McNeely, the best fiction writer by far I know personally.

The project is a great type of writing exercise that could be used in conjunction with the OpenFiction Project course materials.

Here’s how the project works:


A talented, creative writer invents a story about an object. Invested with new significance by this fiction, the object should — according to our hypothesis — acquire not merely subjective but objective value. How to test our theory? Via eBay!


  1. The project’s curators purchase objects — for no more than a few dollars — from thrift stores and garage sales.
  2. A participating writer is paired with an object. He or she then writes a fictional story, in any style or voice, about the object. Voila! An unremarkable, castoff thingamajig has suddenly become a “significant” object!
  3. Each significant object is listed for sale on eBay. The s.o. is pictured, but instead of a factual description the s.o.’s newly written fictional story is used. However, care is taken to avoid the impression that the story is a true one; the intent of the project is not to hoax eBay customers. (Doing so would void our test.) The author’s byline will appear with his or her story.
  4. The winning bidder is mailed the significant object, along with a printout of the object’s fictional story. Net proceeds from the sale are given to the respective author. Authors retain all rights to their stories.
  5. The test’s results — photos, original prices and final sale prices, stories — are cataloged on this website. The project’s curators retain the right to use these materials in other venues and media. For example: Maybe we’ll publish a book.

A great way to generate new stories. I’ll be interested to see how well the story sells on eBay, but so far Tom has done quite well at convincing people to pay money for the same words they already have at home in their dictionary. Please bid to help keep Tom fed adequately.

Of profiles and pop-ups

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on September 9, 2009

For as long as I’ve been evaluating the use of MIT OpenCouseWare, our highest-level user profile has been relatively consistent. Our first evaluation put educators at around 13% of our audience, students around 40%, and self learners at 53% (these figures are from memory).

The numbers shifted somewhat over the years, with educators moving steadily upward to 15%. Students settled somewhat lower to around 30%, and self learners fell to around 50%. The numbers all seemed to be moving in comfortably predictable trend lines.

At the same time, I knew as far back as 2006 that Firefox was skewing our data collection with its efficient pop-up blocker. In the notes from the report released that year, I described this impact. I also had it in my to-do list to implement a system that would correct for this issue.

For the 2009 survey I finally got a system implemented that did not rely on pop-ups, and while I understood that Firefox was having an impact, I didn’t understand the implications of the impact until after I looked over the numbers. What I might in retrospect have predicted but only became clear in data analysis was the differential adoption of Firefox across the user profiles.

Firefox, it turned out, was being adopted at a significantly higher rate by students than by educators or self learners.  In the 2009 survey, 57% or educators and self learners were using Firefox, while a staggering 67% of students reported using the browser.   As market share of Firefox among students grew, they were being disproportionately underrepresented in our survey results.

For the ’09 survey, the profile numbers are 9% educators, 42% students and 42% self learners.  This shift isn’t earth-shattering, I think, but it does raise some interesting questions.  With the old numbers, it could be easily argued that the predominance of MIT OpenCourseWare’s impact was in the informal learning sphere, and certainly US self learners continue to be the single biggest block of OCW users.  With the new numbers, it appears that OCW is having more of an impact on formal educational systems than has been apparent to date.

No doubt some of this impact in educational systems is “informal,” use of OCW as supplementary resources not directly incorporated into formal instruction.  Among both students and educators, enhancing personal knowledge (informal study) is a primary scenario of use.  But that informal study is occuring within a specific context, with other resources—libraries, peers, instructors—available.

It may be a while until I understand all of the implications of this, but I do think it means we need to look more closely on campus, and try to better understand how OCW-type resources are reshaping the formal educational experience.

You’ve got (direct) mail

Posted in advertising, sustainability, the OpenFiction Project by scarsonmsm on September 4, 2009

In what I first thought was some kind of a spoof, I received a letter yesterday from the Google-monster. An in-the-USPS-written-on-honest-to-goodness-paper letter addressed to “Marketing Manager, TOFP.” I suppose I technically am the marketing manager for tOFP, but I have yet to add Google ads to the site, or to consider buying ads to drive more traffic. I wonder if they bought the contact from my hosting service, Warped, or if they just pulled it out of the cloud.

The letter helpfully informs:

See how quickly and easily you can attract new customers by advertising on Google (TM). With Google AdWords, Google’s online advertising program, you can easily create ads that appear next to relevant search results on and its network of partner web sites. When people click on your ad, they’re connected to your business. Get started with this special offer of $100 in free advertising and see what Google AdWords can do for you.

It’s like seeing a whale fly. I really hadn’t ever considered that Google did anything that wasn’t digital.

Under the category no publicity is bad

Posted in OpenCourseWare, sustainability by scarsonmsm on September 3, 2009

I hope this piece in the CHE brings attention to the relatively modest amount of funding needed to get the Utah State University OCW back up and running. I think I can speak for the OCW community as a whole in saying we all feel badly for Marion. There’s no-one in the movement who has done as much on a shoestring budget as he has, and the USU OCW is a really wonderful resource. I hope to see them back in business soon.

Welcome to the new home of tOFP [Blog]

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on September 3, 2009

Please excuse the mess as I’m still moving in from my old home. Yes I intend to keep the CC licensing and I’ll be adding a fresh blog roll as time allows. Hope to get back to blogging a bit more in the coming months.