OpenFiction [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.

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,

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.

Second Offering of Python Mechanical MOOC Course to Begin November 26th #mmooc

Posted in Mechanical MOOC, Open Educational Resources by scarsonmsm on November 8, 2012

Innovative model combining open education resources drew 6,000 registrants for first offering

CAMBRIDGE, MA, November 8th, 2012 — In August of this year, a group of leading open education projects announced the launch of a massive open online class (MOOC) that had no instructor or central learning platform. This so-called “mechanical” MOOC combined the offerings of three leading open education projects—MIT OpenCourseWare, OpenStudy and Codecademy—loosely linked together by an e-mail list to create a free and open course on introductory Python programming.  The initial offering of the course, managed by Peer 2 Peer University, attracted 6,000 learners from around the world. A second round of the course will begin in late November, even before the first has concluded.

Sign up for the next offering of A Gentle Introduction to Python at

The vision for the course is that the e-mail list helps participants to keep moving through the materials together, but also provides flexibility supporting the differing pace of individual learners.  ”There’s no penalty for working faster or slower than the e-mail schedule,” notes P2PU Executive Director Philipp Schimdt.  ”Since the resources are all openly available, our job is more about creating community than enforcing rigid schedules.”  The e-mail list driven model also means that new rounds of the course can be started at any time, allowing multiple cohorts of students to move through the materials and even support one another.

“There are tremendous advantages to our approach,” comments OpenStudy’s co-founder and CEO Preetha Ram.  ”The learners from the first round are now four weeks into the course.  They’ll be a tremendous resource for the learners starting in the second round.  And for students in the first round who are struggling, they have the option of dropping back to the second round.”  P2PU’s Schmidt also notes that the Mechanical MOOC model supports very rapid iteration and improvement.  ”We’re folding what we learn from the first round directly into the second round six weeks later.  We don’t have to wait for a semester to end or course to conclude.”

The Gentle Introduction to Python course combines content from MIT OpenCourseWare’s 6.189 A Gentle Introduction to Python class, with a study group supported through OpenStudy and instant feedback and practice projects from Codecademy. Learners earn badges demonstrating mastery through Codecademy and earn recognition of collaborative skills through OpenStudy’s SmartScore.

About P2PU

The Peer 2 Peer University is a grassroots open education project that organizes learning outside of institutional walls and gives learners recognition for their achievements. P2PU creates a model for lifelong learning alongside traditional formal higher education. Leveraging the internet and educational materials openly available online, P2PU enables high-quality low-cost education opportunities. P2PU – learning for everyone, by everyone about almost anything.

About OpenStudy

OpenStudy is a social study network where students can ask questions, give help, collaborate and meet others. Founded by professors and students from Georgia Tech and Emory University, and funded by the National Science Foundation and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, OpenStudy believes that students can teach other students through collaborative learning. OpenStudy believes in making the world one large study group where students can work together in a single place regardless of their school, country or background.

About Codecademy

Codecademy is the easiest way to learn to code. Since its launch in August of 2011, Codecademy has been used by millions of users in more than 100 countries. Users learn to build websites, create web applications, and to understand the fundamentals of computer science through an innovative, interactive interface. Codecademy is funded by top tier investors like Union Square Ventures and Kleiner Perkins.

About MIT OpenCourseWare

MIT OpenCourseWare makes the materials used in the teaching of substantially all of MIT’s undergraduate and graduate courses—more than 2,100 in all—available on the Web, free of charge, to any user in the world. OCW receives an average of 1.75 million web site visits per month from more than 215 countries and territories worldwide. To date, more than 125 million individuals have accessed OCW materials.


Philipp Schmidt
Executive Director
Peer 2 Peer University

Higher Ed Today appearance

Posted in MIT OpenCourseWare, Open Educational Resources, OpenCourseWare by scarsonmsm on October 11, 2012

Had the pleasure of appearing last week on a DC cable show, Higher Ed Today, along with Candace Thille of CMU’s OLI.  Thanks, Steven!

For your viewing pleasure:

MIT OpenCourseWare Releases Episode 1 of ChemLab Boot Camp Series

Videos follow 14 MIT freshmen through their introduction to hands-on science.

CAMBRIDGE, MA, September 18, 2012 — MIT OpenCourseWare has released the first episode of its newest open educational offering, ChemLab Boot Camp, a video series that chronicles the experiences of 14 real MIT freshmen as they get their first taste of working in MIT chemistry labs.

Each year, groups of MIT freshmen are introduced to MIT’s laboratory environment through a four-week January course called 5.301 Chemistry Laboratory Techniques. In January 2012, a film crew followed these students as they competed to complete experiments. The stakes in the class are high—students who pass the class are guaranteed a job in an MIT research lab.

Watch Episode 1 of ChemLab Boot Camp.

Ten additional episodes will be released each week through the fall, and announced on the ChemLab Boot Camp e-mail list. The 2-5 minute episodes, shot in a style that mixes the geek fun of open educational resources with the immediacy of reality TV, brings viewers closer to the experience of being an MIT student than ever before. Follow the students as they struggle to master the intricacies of working with solvents and compete to create the largest crystals. The videos are part of a broader effort funded by The Dow Chemical Company to foster interest in science and engineering careers.

“Despite the critical need for more and more people trained in chemistry and chemical engineering, the fields have not been as attractive as they should be,” said MIT Professor John Essigmann in commenting on the inspiration for the series. “Dow and MIT have mobilized our collective resources to try to show high school and college students what it is like to be a chemist. We hope to show the human side of our field and to inspire young people to want to become the next generation of chemists.”

The MIT-Dow Outreach Fund is designed to develop and support the science and engineering careers of underrepresented minorities and women. A five-year, $2 million commitment from The Dow Chemical Company, the fund supports the advancement of the shared goals of both Dow and MIT to support science education throughout the entire pipeline. The establishment of this Outreach Program comes as MIT celebrates its 150th anniversary.

About Dow

Dow (NYSE: DOW) combines the power of science and technology to passionately innovate what is essential to human progress. The Company connects chemistry and innovation with the principles of sustainability to help address many of the world’s most challenging problems such as the need for clean water, renewable energy generation and conservation, and increasing agricultural productivity. Dow’s diversified industry-leading portfolio of specialty chemical, advanced materials, agrosciences and plastics businesses delivers a broad range of technology-based products and solutions to customers in approximately 160 countries and in high growth sectors such as electronics, water, energy, coatings and agriculture. In 2011, Dow had annual sales of $60 billion and employed approximately 52,000 people worldwide. The Company’s more than 5,000 products are manufactured at 197 sites in 36 countries across the globe. References to “Dow” or the “Company” mean The Dow Chemical Company and its consolidated subsidiaries unless otherwise expressly noted. More information about Dow can be found at

About Highlights for High School

Highlights for High School organizes more than 70 introductory level courses from the OCW site, and indexes over 2,700 individual resources to the AP curricula for calculus, chemistry, physics and biology, helping United States AP students and educators to find resources quickly. Highlights also includes dozens of demonstrations, competitions and other activities from MIT classes that show how fun and challenging science and technology subjects can be, inspiring the next generation of US engineers and scientists.

About MIT OpenCourseWare

MIT OpenCourseWare makes the materials used in the teaching of substantially all of MIT’s undergraduate and graduate courses—more than 2,100 in all—available on the Web, free of charge, to any user in the world. OCW receives an average of 1.75 million web site visits per month from more than 215 countries and territories worldwide. To date, more than 100 million individuals have accessed OCW materials.


Christine Welch
Echo Media
(714) 573-0899 ext. 225

Testing out the Mechanical MOOC – the unplatform

Posted in Mechanical MOOC, MIT OpenCourseWare, MOOC, Open Educational Resources, OpenCourseWare, Video by scarsonmsm on September 12, 2012

I’m working with a group of testers to run through the initial draft of the course sequence for the upcoming Mechanical MOOC Intro to Python course, and I have to say, I am really loving the unplatform aspects of it.  I live in one of the more wired cities in the US, and I still spend a fair amount of my time outside of WiFi range.  I tried to complete the Udacity Stats course this summer, but one of the challenges was that I always had to be connected. My biggest blocks of free time are during my train commute, when theoretically I have wireless service (from AT&T) but practically I have at best spotty cell coverage (from AT&T).  This meant no working on the Stats course during the ride.

Because the  Mechanical MOOC depends on existing open content outside of an enforced platform, I have other options.  MIT OpenCourseWare helpfully provides a course download option, so I have the 6.189 course installed locally.  The text for the course is an open resource downloadable as a PDF.  The videos from 6.00 are available through iTunes U, so accessible offline on both my laptop and phone.   As an added bonus, OpenStudy just released a mobile interface, so I can even ask and answer questions without a WiFi connection.  Codecademy even seems to be functional on my iPhone at some level, though I doubt I’ll try to complete those lessons on that platform.

By not creating and enforcing a single platform, the Mechanical MOOC gives up the opportunity to harvest lots of tightly integrated data about the learners, but it allows us to take advantage of all the hard work that the content and community providers have put into making their environment accessible and inviting.  Hopefully this model is going to allow us to meet the learners where they live.

Excerpt from my review of Unlocking the Gates

Posted in MIT OpenCourseWare, MOOC, Open Educational Resources, OpenCourseWare by scarsonmsm on August 27, 2012

Here’s a paragraph from my review of Taylor Walsh’s book Unlocking the Gates.  The review was published in the Continuing Higher Education Review, Vol. 76, 2012.  Walsh’s book reviews a number of the early online courseware efforts, including, MIT OpenCourseWare, Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative and India’s National Program on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL).

What is consistent for me between these projects and the subsequent MOOCs at Stanford and MIT is that they are all in one way or another institutional answers to the question MIT president Charles Vest posed in 2000 to the committee that ultimately recommended MIT OpenCourseWare: How will the Internet change education, and what should our university do about it? That charge has echoed throughout the open-education community in the last decade as schools continue to grapple with these fundamental issues, and with the emergence of the newest generation of open online offerings, MOOCs, these questions take on increasing urgency.

You ask, the Mechanical MOOC answers

Posted in MOOC, Open Educational Resources, OpenCourseWare by scarsonmsm on August 24, 2012

FAQs for the Mechanical MOOC

What is a “MOOC”?

A massive open online course. They’re the latest rage in online learning. OK, they’ve actually been around a while in a variety of different forms, the first of which was a free-for-all approach with little central control where learners co-create a learning experience (“cMOOCs”), and the more recent variety, which are much more like traditional online classes (“xMOOCs”). You can read more about them at

In both cases, lots and lots of people get together to learn online. These courses are scalable because of peer learning environments that allow the learners to support each other, and because of assessment engines that automate feedback. Typically, participants number on the thousands, though some recent examples have included more than 100,000 initial participants.

OK, what is a “mechanical” MOOC?

Well, with previous MOOCs, there’s still been a professor who offers the course. Our course has no instructor. Our theory is that online learning tools have become robust enough with a light amount of coordination, learners can move through them together and support each other’s learning without a central authority

We are establishing a mailing list that will coordinate learner activities across a selection of online tools, letting you know when class activities are taking place and where to go to participate.

Why would you create a Mechanical MOOC?

We have a theory about MOOCs as they exist today. The first version of MOOCs–the cMOOCs–we think, are a little too unstructured for many learners, casting them into an unbounded environment of blogs, wikis, RSS feeds and other web technologies that are more than many learners can or want to manage.

On the other hand, the new strain of MOOCs–the xMOOCs–offered out of major universities and their spinoffs seem to be all competing to create the killer platform, and we have doubts that this can—or should–be done successfully. Usually, when sites try to do it all, they end up doing not much of it very well.

The lesson of open education in the past 10 years seems to be that the components of education—content, community and assessment—can be unbundled, and that sites can focus on providing one aspect of education very well. So we are combining three “best-of-breed” sites to create an offering that we think is as good or better than other approaches.

Is this course competing with the Stanford’s and MIT’s of the world?

No, this is an experiment to test our theory about the current MOOCs. Whatever comes out of it will be a very different learning experience than either the cMOOCs or xMOOCs. It will hopefully be more structured that the former and less structured than the latter.

It will certainly not be a neat and polished environment where all the pieces are custom-created to fit together neatly. But on the other hand, we hope to bring together the best of what’s already out there without having to build anything from scratch–a significant cost advantage, and a model that will empower many more open education projects to experiment with MOOC-like offerings.

What course are you offering?

The first course will be called “A gentle introduction to Python” and will be, well, a gentle introduction to Python programming.

Who is offering the class?

A group of leading open education sites are involved, including Peer 2 Peer University, OpenStudy, Codecademy, and MIT OpenCourseWare. Peer 2 Peer University is managing the mailing list.

MIT is participating. Is this an MITx offering? A competing program?

Neither. MIT OpenCourseWare supports all experiments involving their content that are consistent with the mission and spirit of the program, and this is one of them. We all have a lot to learn about how open learning takes place, and the more data points the better. This MOOC will not offer an MITx certificate.

How big will this Mechanical MOOC be?

We don’t know, but we’re confident it can be very big. These sites already serve thousands and in some cases millions of users, so we can handle whatever may come. But we’re ok if it’s small also. Our concern is less about getting huge numbers in the front end, and more about delivering a good learning experience for everyone who participates.

How can I get to know others who are studying?

OpenStudy will provide a forum where all learners can interact in one big study group, so that’s a great place to start. We’re also offering the opportunity for learners to be assigned to groups of ten, so that you can work more closely with a more limited cohort.

Where do I sign up?

Sign up for the mailing list at You’ll also have to register eventually for the OpenStudy site and Codecademy, but this can be done as the course progresses, so no worries.

Do I get a certificate?

Nope, but both Codecademy offers badges and OpenStudy has SmartScore, so you’ll get recognition of your work there. One of our long-term goals for Mechanical MOOC is to figure out how recognition works in this approach. NOTE: This MOOC will not offer an MITx certificate.

What good are the badges?

They are a shorthand for sharing your informal educational achievements on the Web, and a lot of smart people, including the good folks at Mozilla, are working hard to figure out how to make them more meaningful.

Can I use other sites and services with this course?

Absolutely. We encourage participants to bring in other tools, self-organize, and share what they are doing with the rest of the community. We’re tyring to learn here as well.