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Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Feb 17, 2007

Responding to Stephen Carson. I wanted to post this as a comment, but his blog requires that you be logged in to post a comment, and then provides no way to register, making commenting impossible.

Stephen Carson takes issue with my comments in a recent eLearn article where I distinguish between MIT's OpenCourseWare style of open educational resources (OERs) and the Open University'. In a nutshell, the former consists of the handouts and related materials used to support an in-person class, while the latter consists of self-study materials.

Carson is right when he asserts that I prefer the latter over the former, for reasons I'll get to in just a moment. He nonetheless appears to rather misinterpret the gesture I made in calling the one form 'green' and the other 'gold'. Perhaps he is not familiar with the open archiving movement. Proponents such as Steven Harnad use the green-gold system to argue that both are acceptable, though they constitute different forms of access.

I was trying to say that while I don't think the OCW approach was everything it could be, I was nonetheless supportive.

But why would I take the stance I did in the first place? Carson takes issue with me when I say this: "The understated message in an initiative such as OCW is that an MIT education is not equivalent to the resources that support the education, that it consists essentially of the contact with the professors and the community that develops among the students."

Well, yeah. But the reason I say this is that this is what MIT staff said when OCW was launched, and what they continue to say to this day. I am not the one saying that OCW is not a complete package, MIT is the one saying this.

Now of course I continue on to criticize this approach in a way that MIT staff obviously would not. I ask, contra MIT staff, "is the development of an institution and a class, whether online or in person, necessary in order to translate digital content into learning?" Remember, I am not the one saying that OCW is not a complete education. MIT staff are the ones saying it.

And, it seems to me, that if MIT staff are saying that OCW is not a complete education, and that if OCW was developed and implemented by MIT staff, then it was a deliberate policy intent of MIT to not provide a complete education. The materials would be helpful, but not in themselves enough. That's what they said. So, obviously, what you would need, in addition to OCW materials, is MIT staff.

Now I would suggest that Stephen Carson not get all huffy with me for merely repeating what MIT officials told the world.

My suggestion in the article is that the creation and distribution of complete self-study packages, a la the Open University, is better. I say this, not simply because OCW 'does not address my agenda', but because I believe that there are good reasons to believe full self-study materials are better than incomplete course resources.

Carson himself makes it clear why you would want to offer complete self-study resources rather than ones that are designed to be supplemented by in-person instruction: "the data we've developed [PDF - 9.0MB] demonstrating that the vast majority of use of OCW is self-learning independent of institution and classroom." In other words, exactly the use not intended by MIT staff when they developed OCW.

Well, of course, this was always going to be the case, wasn't it? Only a few rich people can afford the personal tutelage of MIT professors, or even those of affiliated institutions. The vast majority of people accessing the materials, and particularly those outside the western nations, cannot afford professors. So they make do with the materials, even though they're incomplete.

That's what makes the materials good. That's what makes them 'green'. Because people can make do with them. But surely it is not unreasonable for me to prefer materials explicitly designed to support self-study over materials designed to make it harder. No?

Carson explains the point of his objection to my characterization: "the reason Stephen's comments irk me is that they are exactly the kinds of comments likely to discourage broad participation in open sharing." In particular, "Stephen dings us on the one hand for appearing elitist and then turns around and sets a gold standard for open sharing that very few other schools are going to be able to meet."

Well, if MIT staff had come out several years ago and said something like, "We would like to be able to offer full self-study materials, but this is not our expertise, so we're going to do what we can," that would be one thing, and I could very easily have lived with that explanation.

But instead what we got was a stuffy, "Of course, it's not an MIT education," which makes me think, well aren't we so lucky they're allowing access for their leavings for us plebes. Now that's not an accurate picture either - I know as much as anyone how much work it has been to put OCW together and to make it available. But that's how it sounds - and I'm not the one making it sound that way.

A little humility would wear well on MIT, some sort of admission that it did not invent everything and cannot solve all the world's problems. If MIT cannot produce materials up to the quality of the Open University's, well, that's OK, they're still good. They're 'green'. Not 'gold', sure, but nonetheless, still worth supporting.

Would the development of materials up to the Open University's standard deter broad participation in open sharing? It's hard to say, though it's worth nothing that the Open University does now exist, and so we're going to see whether the deployment of that model has any impact. I don't see why it would. I haven't seen any slowdown in activity since Open University's announcement. If anything, it has sped up. Sure, the bar is higher now. But I don't see people throwing up their hands and saying "Oh it's too hard for us." And why would they? Most academic I know - even ones who aren't from MIT - think that they could improve on existing materials. That's what drew them to the profession in the first place.

So, yeah. I'm going to criticize the attitude. I'm going to criticize the proposition that you need the tutelage of MIT professors to get an MIT-quality education. I'm going to question why the OCW Consortium site offers no community function (this is not 1995, after all - we've evolved well beyond links). I'm going to wonder why participation needs to be mediated through a secretive email exchange.

And let me emphasize, since this point seems to have been missed: I support OpenCourseWare. I think it's a good thing. I am pleased that MIT has spent the time and money to make these resources available. This support is pretty much unqualified.

Just... if something better comes along, I'm going to say it's better. In what would would I not do this?

p.s. I did not write the article for ScienceGuide (I have never even heard of them). The source Carson cites, ScienceGuide, has published a copy of the article taken from eLearn. Not that I care, but eLearn Magazine may have something to say about it.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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