OpenFiction [Blog]

Unlocking the gates, reading notes

So, as promised, a few thoughts on Unlocking the Gates, Taylor Walsh’s examination of online courseware (to use her term). I’ve taught enough writing to understand that telling a story like this is largely about the creation of a false coherence through the imposition of narrative structure, and is as much about omission as about what is included. In other words, it’s a sensemaking exercise.  Taylor’s book is a valuable introduction to the field and the key issues, and most of the critiques I have are along the lines of what gets lost or obscured in the telling of any story, rather than things I think are wrong or ought to have been addressed differently.

First, by virtue of the projects selected, the book makes online courseware seem like the province of elite institutions, and at least in the OCW world it’s simply not the case. After the launch of MIT OpenCourseWare, the next OCW to go live was the Fullbright Economics Teaching Program OCW in Vietnam (which has been posting content as long as we have). A quick look at the list of OCW Consortium members will reveal a collection of schools working at a variety of levels and serving a variety of audiences, which together have published an enormous amount of material (12,000 courses excluding MIT’s). Many of the discussions in the book would have been much richer with an examination of why these schools are publishing their content openly.

What is also obvious from looking at the OCWC membership list is that it’s a very international movement. The chapter on NPTEL is really valuable, and does a great job of illustrating how NPTEL is not a follow-on to OCW but a thoughtful application of technology and open sharing to a local educational problem. By virtue of the projects selected again, however, the book is weighted to US (and British) efforts, whereas the OCW movement has huge centers of gravity in IberoAmerica, Asia and other regions. The book would have been significantly enhanced by more attention to these efforts, including the enormous effort in China to publish courseware in support of the educational system there.  Fortunately, Stian Haklev has written an excellent thesis on the subject, which I recommend as an additional reading for anyone reading Unlocking the Gates.

I do think the analysis of the value of the projects is fairly one-dimensional, focused narrowly on the subject of student learning, largely because this is where the projects overlap and because this is the most measurable of impacts.  Fair enough to say that MIT OpenCourseWare is not the ideal tool to support student learning and that OLI is better designed to meet this need, but students moving through OCW materials as though they were taking a course is a very small portion of our overall use.  OCW is used as an educational reference resource more than as a set of online course one can somehow “take” and demonstrating value needs to take account of a wide range of uses.  Which is what makes it hard.

But lines have to be drawn somewhere in doing this kind of work and certainly this was a tremendous effort on Taylor’s part and it’s a huge contribution to the field.

One small thing that is factually wrong is the level of effort that goes into MIT OpenCourseWare’s media relations–Taylor indicates that OCW “employs two full-time external relations professionals” charged with dealing with the media.  Not the case.  I am External Relations Director, and I have an External Outreach Manager, Yvonne, that works with me.  Yvonne spends the bulk of her time managing analytics reporting, our mirror site and translation programs, and running out visitor donations program (which she does very successfully).  She rarely interacts with the media–only in a pinch if I am unavailable.  I do work with media, by it’s maybe 20% of my time, if that.  I manage our program evaluation, oversee significant portions of our other fundraising efforts, manage relationships with a portfolio of prospective and current collaborators, and spend a chunk of my time on duties related to the OCW Consortium.

I also think that the purpose of the media efforts is misidentified in the book–it’s really not to improve MIT’s brand; MIT gets plenty enough positive news coverage as it is.  We were charged by the MIT faculty with producing the greatest benefit possible out of their gifts of educational content, and that means making as many people as possible aware of OCW.  Awareness is right in the wheelhouse of our core mission—generating global benefit.  The secondary aspect is that our sustainability will depend on growing our audience to the point where visitor donations are a significant revenue stream and we reach enough people to make corporate underwriting attractive.  Certainly MIT as a whole benefits from the positive press, but lots of amazing people do amazing work here—MIT could get more bang for the buck highlighting that work than inventing a whole program like this to trumpet.  Plus, as I’ve often said, MIT could likely have gotten the same PR benefit from publishing 200 courses rather than 2,000.

I guess the reason this bothers me (after all, I should just shut up and take credit for it) is that saying that MIT’s success is the result of savvy marketing diminishes importance of the faculty’s content and the value our audience finds in it.  OCW is a program that markets itself because it provides content and educational opportunities that people truly value–it’s a story that tells itself.  My job in working with the media is largely to not mess up telling the story.

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