OpenFiction [Blog]

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

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.

Will the world’s most popular professor create the world’s most massive online course? #mooc

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on January 23, 2013

MIT Physics Professor Walter Lewin announces massive open online course through edX.

CAMBRIDGE, MA, January 23, 2013 – Walter Lewin, the MIT physics professor who has achieved an unparalleled following through his video lectures on the MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) site, is now offering a massive open online course (MOOC).  The course, 8.02x Electricity and Magnetism, is available through edX, MIT and Harvard’s not-for-profit online learning enterprise.  Announced today and starting February 18th, the course may well become the biggest of the MOOC yet offered. Learners successfully completing the course will receive a certificate bearing Professor Lewin’s signature to recognize their achievement.

In the past two years, MOOCs have been putting up impressive numbers.  The first MOOC offered by MIT, 6.002x Circuits and Electronics, enrolled more than 150,000 learners, and other edX courses have been attracting learners numbering in the tens of thousands.  Millions worldwide have taken free massive open online classes through edX and other providers.

But these numbers pale in comparison to the numbers associated with Professor Lewin’s online course materials published through MIT OpenCourseWare:

  • Professor Lewin’s courses—including 8.01 Classical Mechanics, 8.02 Electricity and Magnetism and 8.03 Vibrations and Waves—have been visited more than 8 million times on OCW
  • The video lectures for these courses have been viewed more than 11.4 million times on YouTube
  • The first lecture for 8.01 has been viewed more than 1.2 million times on YouTube
  • Translations of Professor Lewin’s courses in Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Turkish and Thai have been accessed by hundreds of thousands of learners

The extent of Professor Lewin’s global recognition through OCW has the potential to attract an enormous number of learners to his edX course.

Professor Lewin’s course, however, has more to offer than just size.  His lectures are recognized worldwide for their quality and clarity, and approach the material with MIT-level rigor.  Learners taking the course will get a taste of what it’s like to attend a first-year physics class at MIT, complete with assessments similar to those MIT students receive. The class offers the opportunity for the millions who have gained a new appreciation of Physics through Professor Lewin’s lectures to test that understanding using the latest online learning tools, and to receive a certificate recognizing their achievement.

Prerequisite courses for 8.02x include 8.01 Classical Mechanics and 18.01 Single Variable Calculus, both of which are available for independent study on the OCW site in the unique OCW Scholar format.  OCW Scholar courses provide MIT course materials in a self-guided format that can be accessed at any time, but do not include instructor support or recognition for completion.

In addition to Professor Lewin’s class, MIT has announced another new course, The Challenges of Global Poverty from Esther Duflo, to be offered through edX; Introduction to Computer Science and Programming and Introduction to Solid State Chemistry, both offered in 2012, are again available in 2013.

About Professor Walter Lewin

A native of The Netherlands, Professor Walter H. G. Lewin received his Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Delft (1965). In 1966, he came to MIT as a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Physics and was invited to join the faculty as an Assistant Professor later that same year. He was promoted to Associate Professor of Physics in 1968 and to full Professor in 1974. Professor Lewin’s honors and awards include the NASA Award for Exceptional Scientific Achievement (1978), twice recipient of the Alexander von Humboldt Award (1984 and 1991), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1984), MIT’s Science Council Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching (1984) and the W. Buechner Teaching Prize of the MIT Department of Physics (1988). In 1997, he was the recipient of a NASA Group Achievement Award for the Discovery of the Bursting Pulsar.  He is a member of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences (elected 1993), Fellow of the American Physical Society.

About edX

EdX is a not-for-profit enterprise of its founding partners Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology focused on transforming online and on-campus learning through groundbreaking methodologies, game-like experiences and cutting-edge research. EdX provides inspirational and transformative knowledge to students of all ages, social status, and income who form worldwide communities of learners. EdX uses its open source technology to transcend physical and social borders. We’re focused on people, not profit. EdX is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the USA.

About MIT OpenCourseWare

MIT OpenCourseWare makes the materials used in the teaching of substantially all of MIT’s undergraduate and graduate courses—more than 2,150 in all—available on the Web, free of charge, to any user in the world. OCW receives an average of 2 million website visits per month from more than 215 countries and territories worldwide. To date, more than 150 million individuals have accessed OCW materials.

Leading open learning projects create a massive online course that combines best-of-breed open offerings

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on August 20, 2012

MIT OpenCourseWare, OpenStudy, Codecademy, and Peer 2 Peer University join to offer “mechanical” MOOC

CAMBRIDGE, MA, August 21, 2012 — In the past year, schools including Stanford, MIT and Harvard–and spinoffs including Coursera and Udacity–have begun offering massive open online courses (MOOCs) where students numbering in the hundreds of thousands are taught by one or two instructors and a few TAs. Now a group of leading open education projects is announcing the launch of a new MOOC offering in October 2012 with no instructor involved–and in fact no one institution or organization in charge. This so-called “mechanical” MOOC will combine the offerings of three leading open education projects–MIT OpenCourseWare, OpenStudy and Codecademy–loosely linked together by an e-mail list managed by Peer 2 Peer University to create a free and open course on introductory Python Programming.

“The MOOCs that have come out in the last six months are really incredible and have truly moved the needle for online learning,” said P2PU co-founder and Executive Director Philipp Schmidt, “but they are based on very sophisticated central platforms and require significant resources to develop. The mechanical MOOC is an attempt to leverage the power of the open web–by loosely joining together a set of independent building blocks. Rather than developing a new platform that does everything–deliver content, support community, provide feedback–we are simply connecting some of the most interesting applications out there, and letting each take care of a particular aspect of the overall learning experience. ”

The course will combine 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 will earn badges demonstrating mastery through Codecademy and will earn recognition of collaborative skills through OpenStudy’s SmartScore.

Participants will register for a mailing list that will coordinate their progress through the content and assessments and signal when discussions on particular topics will occur. The sequencing e-mails will run in multiple rounds, allowing learners who are struggling to fall back into the next round and repeat units and still have a cohort of learners, rather than being left completely behind.

“We want to do more than sign-up tens of thousands of students and have only a fraction succeed,“ commented OpenStudy co-founder Preetha Ram. “Our goal is to have everyone who participates succeed. We want to help learners remain engaged throughout the course and be supported by a community.”

Already, these sites individually draw huge audiences: MIT OpenCourseWare attracts more than 1 million visitors a month, OpenStudy sees 250,000 students coming for help each month, including 16,000 in an introductory programming group, and Codecademy has seen several million users since August 2011. Each program has demonstrated the ability to deliver its particular service at scale, and this offering will seek to build on those successes by building synergies between the offerings.

The course, called “A Gentle Introduction to Python,” is slated to start mid-October, 2012, with initial enrollment available starting August 21 at

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

Stanford courses and college admissions

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on December 14, 2011

I heard the other day that participation in the Stanford AI course stands at about 20,000 out of the initial 160,000. Not far off participation trends in online learning generally and very impressive for a free offering. And still a very big number.

What intrigues me is that this may offer even elite schools the opportunity to have some form of open enrollment option. Instead of having to guess which 5% of applicants are most likely to succeed, schools can offer a set of qualifying courses in a similar format to all comers and accept the most successful.

This truly would have a democratizing effect on higher education. I’m sure the system would have its own biases, but at least theoretically, anyone would have a chance to get in based on actual performance. And even a very small fee would likely generate enough revenue to more than cover cost.

What if…?

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on November 15, 2011

One of the things that I learned recently at the Asia OpenCourseWare Conference was that a major newspaper in Taiwan that publishes US News & World Report-style college rankings has begun considering OpenCourseWare as part of its ranking formula–reportedly 5% of the total.

OCW publication is a more widespread practice in Korea than in the US. A government-sponsored site includes more than 1,000 courses from 127 institutions, and the Korea OCW Consortium includes 19 leading universities.

What would happen in the US, I wonder, if US News & WR suddenly began considering transparency and knowledge dissemination as embodied in OCW/OER projects as a part of its formula? I’m sure they are lobbied all the time for changes to the formula, but I think there is a pretty good case to be made here.

After all, schools sharing their educational content openly must be fairly confident it’s of good quality, and OCW certainly aids students in selecting a program that is not only of high quality, but also well suited to their learning styles and interests. Plus OCW/OER demonstrates a serious commitment by the institution in fulfilling its mission to disseminate knowledge and address global educational needs.

Any thoughts on how to start the campaign?

We finally cleaned out the OCW freezer

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on September 22, 2011

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Higher Education’s TiVo Moment?

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on September 7, 2011

Most of my thinking about educational technology in the past ten years has been about the changes in informal lifelong learning, the space where OpenCourseWare has had its biggest impact.  For a variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking more about the changes technology will bring to the traditional campus.  It’s been a topic of intense discussion here on the MIT, with a number of interesting ideas emerging.  In particular, the focus on modularity of curriculum discussed in the above article has brought me back to a musing I’ve had for a while about one direction of technology’s impact.  From the article:

MITCET (MIT Council on Educational Technology) has identified the theme of modularity as a key enabler of ideas like the ones above. Rather than trying to dictate specific initiatives, our goal is to foster an educational system at MIT that is more modular and flexible both in time (not always organized into one-semester chunks) and geography (not always on campus).

What I’ve been wondering is  When will campus-based education have its TiVo moment?  TiVo changed everything about the way I consume TV by freeing me from the dictates of the broadcast schedule through a technology that overcomes its constraints.  Similarly, one of the most determinant aspects of the campus experience is the course schedule, which impacts nearly every facet of how campus-based education is provided.  Certainly there are time-shifting opportunities for campus education, but education is far more complex than simple broadcast, and the impacts of technology on academic scheduling are likely to be far more wide-reaching that the impacts on television.

In addition to the basic requirement that groups of people be in the same place at the same time, the rigidity of the academic schedule has other effects as well. Students end up taking courses they otherwise might not have, simply because they fit the schedule slot.  As the MIT article points out, the semester-length course is an artifact of the academic schedule as well.  And because courses are chunked into such large blocks, our systems of prerequisites have been developed to ensure smooth progression.

Scheduling also shapes the relationships that develop between students and faculty.  For most of my undergraduate and graduate programs, my interactions with faculty were bounded by the semesters in which I took their classes.  There were many faculty that could have provided valuable perspective over the course of my education—from my undergraduate years, I can think of a chemist, an anthropologist, a science historian, and a fiction writer who were all quite influential for short periods of time.

There are dangers, of course.  Technology-enabled learning tends to focus on knowledge transfer at the expense of problem-solving and academic inquiry.  Smaller chunks tend to miss the bigger pictures.  And the social tools that might enable deeper student-faculty engagement require a digitally fluent faculty and students that understand and respect social limits.

What might learning  look like on this new, technologically enable campus?  I don’t think anyone can say at this point, but let’s suppose we can agree that flexible, modular and customized learning would still require an overarching structure of some kind, and that generally people learn best when they have a problem they care about to solve.  Let’s also assume for the sake of argument that we agree its important for students to understand how to approach a complex problem from multiple perspectives.

I could then imagine a first year curriculum that was developed around a number of challenges in a range of disciplines—a study of an animal population, design of a mechanical device, a piece of historical fiction.  In each case, the student would pick a challenge, be assigned an mentor from the appropriate field, and have a relatively controlled set of aspects to consider in approaching the problem–historical, scientific, mathematic. ethical, etc—as well as prescribed outcomes including written work.  If curriculum was chunked into relatively small units of a couple a weeks, a student could start into a subject at a more advanced level—say a statistical analysis of animal populations over time—discover they lacked some of the prerequisite knowledge required to carry it out, loop back and acquire the prerequisite knowledge, and then move forward.  In addition to their disciplinary mentor, they might be assigned a mentor for a specific skill set, such as writing.  Mentor relationships would be supported by a social networking software and persistent throughout the student’s time at the school.

During that first year also, the student would be planning for a larger challenge or inquiry, perhaps in coordination with a faculty member’s research, that would structure the final three years of the undergraduate experience.  At the start of the second year, they might add another disciplinary mentor and map out a plan of study to support their challenge.  Again, with shorter, more flexible units to study, students could approach knowledge in a more natural way—going straight to what interests them and looping back to learn the underlying concepts when they have the need and motivation to do so.  They could also be guided to units on perspectives they might not have considered themselves, but that the mentors sees as important to a complete understanding of the challenge.

Obviously this would change the teaching experience dramatically.  To enable the short units of curriculum, much of the knowledge transfer aspects of teaching would move to media platforms, so there would be some elements of creating these.  I’d imagine professors then would spend more of their time working with students in rectitation-like sessions in their discipline, where the focus is on tackling problem areas for students who are struggling; these could be in person or online.  They might also provide shorter, three or four week units in more traditional lecture or classroom settings.  In addition, they would have a more prolonged involvement with a subset of students that they mentored.

Obviously there are many hurdles to overcome to achieve such a vision, and the above might not be the correct vision to begin with, but it’s an interesting exercise to imagine how technology might change the campus experience, and one that is in many ways as difficult as anticipating the way TiVo changed the how TV is consumed.  The only thing I feel sure about is that the TiVo moment is coming for education, and it’s likely not that far off.

Leveraging open content for mobile learning

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on August 3, 2011

We had a visitor in the office today seeking advice for an online learning effort in Africa. In the course of the discussion he was describing possible ways of combining open course materials, which they were planning to create from scratch, with LMS functionality. Since the content would be IP-vetted and openly licensed, there was no need for it to be behind an authentication system, so the question was how best to link the content with the student systems in the LMS.

It reminded me of the implementation of my distance learning course at Emerson circa 2001. Because this was in the early days of LMS development, Emerson did not have student registration linked to LMS enrollment. At the time, many students would register correctly for the course, but it would be as much as two weeks before they were properly enrolled by academic technology in the LMS site for the course.

To ensure these students didn’t fall behind, I’d placed the course content outside the LMS in a personal web folder and inserted it into the LMS frame via a link. To properly enrolled students, it appeared to be in the LMS, but I could point the registered but unenrolled students directly to the web folder.

This had the added advantage of making the content easier to manage, as editing in BBEdit was easier than the content interface of the LMS. I mostly owned all the content, so IP wasn’t a big concern, though there were a few example passages lifted from stories that I felt were minimal risk and defensible via fair use.

I was suggesting this approach to our visitor when he mentioned that he wished there was a mobile solution, as cell phone connectivity was much better than WiFi where they were working. It was at this point that it struck me how open content strategies opened up new opportunities for mobile learning:

Since the content is openly available and doesn’t need password protection, it doesn’t need to be carried in the LMS. In fact, it can travel in a wide variety of ways–CDs, zip files, flash drives, bit torrent. The student just needs to be able to install a local copy on their laptop at the start of the course, and they are freed from the need for WiFi.

A student in Rwanda could use her phone to sign-into the course through moodle’s mobile interface. She could then discuss with other students the content that she had previously worked through locally on her own with the previously downloaded content.*

Moodle already has a number of mobile apps available, and freed of the need to carry content and the related bandwidth penalties, they can be used exclusively for the administrative and interactive functions around the pre-installed content. We’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about how to make MIT OpenCourseWare content more digestible on mobile devices. This is the first time I’ve considered whether, in some mobile environments, it actually made sense to not do so.

* Student scenario courtesy Jan Philipp Schmidt.

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.