Of profiles and pop-ups
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.