The announcement of the MITx initiative last week has several important aspects, but it is nowhere near what we have been doing at the Open University in the UK for decades. It is somewhat premature, lacks any real understanding of the issues involved in assessment, and contains an uneven mix of pedagogy as well.
First, they admit that the announcement is bordering on premature in their so-called FAQs (although how anybody has had time to ask any question frequently before something has been launched is a mystery). MIT appears not to have worked out how to deliver anything more than what's available through Open CourseWare (OCW).
Second, while it was the first large-scale public release of proprietary learning support materials, OCW hasn't exactly set a standard for others to aspire to. The mix of stuff ranges from the praiseworthy to the embarrassing. Are MIT professors still using chalk on blackboards (such as this Physics lecture) and hand-drawn overhead transparencies? Presumably so from all the video lectures you can watch online.
Third, they say they haven't begun to address what they delightfully call credentialing. Take it from me; it's not going to be easy. To do this properly requires MIT (or anyone else) to put in place extremely exacting processes of assessment that are robust to external scrutiny, or else the certification of that learning will have no credibility whatsoever. The number of degree mills that exist to ostensibly do that very thing undermines the validity of such processes for even the most respectable institutions. So the safe option is to take assessment within the quality firewall that has to be set up around an educational establishment. I shall be fascinated to see whether MIT can pull off the trick of encouraging informal learning that they then accredit. True, they are planning on offering something other than an MIT credential for their online learners, so they are aware of these dangers.
Fourth, MIT doesn't really have an organized view of what constitutes content. OCW was just a way of extracting all those dusty old lecture notes and handouts from professors' filing cabinets and they put them on display, dusty warts and all. It's a really mixed bag, much like the professors themselves I guess.
One of the biggest problems that MIT faces is that they select their students from the very best, just like Oxford and Cambridge. You can give those kids almost anything and they'll learn in spite of you. As a research professor, you don't even have to try to teach. You stand up in front of your class and spout the same old tired nonsense that was spouted at you when you were an undergrad and you set the same test questions that you had to answer. As long as enough of your students fail, you're judged to be doing a good job. The quality of their teaching simply doesn't have to be that high to get acceptable results. Not so for the rest of us who have to work much harder to motivate our students.
Put your wares on show to the World and then see what happens. Take a look at this Stanford class with its associated comment stream and see how it compares.
Fifth, the other major flaw in OCW is that it is hard to recreate the classroom experience online. I saw this first in 1997 when I went to a conference at Penn State and it took me by surprise. Up to that point I had thought that the whole idea of distance learning was to treat the learner as an individual, albeit a remotely located one. The model of distance learning in which I was inculcated involved effectively boxing-up the teacher and delivering her/him to the learner at the location of their choice. The media of communication are whatever you have to hand that suit the nature of the communication but the idea is always the same: the learner is engaged in a one-to-one conversation with the teacher.
How Does OU Measure Up?
At Open University, we have a fully integrated online learning experience for many of our students. We're on a long journey from traditional distance learning materials -- print (words and pictures), radio, TV -- through audio and video to Web-based delivery. We still have a lot of conventional print but provide e-book versions of nearly everything in parallel. Most of our newer courses are presented in formats that are equally accessible through the full range of electronic devices (although we're always moving just behind the technology) but every course is centered in our virtual learning environment. And the current big step forward is collaborative learning where we require students to work together on some tasks, which was almost impossible for part-time distance learners until recently.
We offer up there selections from the learning materials we use with our registered students, versioned for more informal learning. There's a separate learning space where learners can get together in 'learning clubs' and structure their own learning within what's available.
The materials are offered, like MIT's, through Creative Commons licensing and we also encourage people to adapt our materials and share them with the community here. We also have our own dedicated YouTube channel where we showcase adaptations of learning materials for our formal students but also purpose-made stuff such as the 60 Second Adventures in Thought, one episode of which can be seen below. Finally, we have a strong presence on iTunesU with downloads now exceeding 40 million in total.
I'm told that a substantial proportion of those downloads are to users in the US.
Everything we put on has been through rigorous quality control checks focused around accessibility and use. Whether the same is true of the MIT materials is hard to tell and remains to be seen.
I keep saying that if the learning experience of Open University students in 2020 isn't unrecognizable compared to what we do now, we shall have failed. There's so much going on that dinosaurs like me can barely keep up and it is going to be an exciting decade to look back on. Content is now truly free and what we have to do is to completely rethink the process of learning, and assessment for and of learning, to suit this new environment. I'm not sure we've even done more than just get started.