Open Learning

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This session will be conducted as a workshop focused on developing a practical strategy for open online education. The goal is to create a model for an online teaching environment that enables a continuing feedback loop between one teacher and many students and classes of students and online curriculum sufficiently engaging to attract and sustain students’ interests in higher education. What type of business plan can sustain this model? How should an effective legal charter be designed?


Bruce McHenry

The experience with OpenCourseWare illustrates the promise and the pitfalls of open online education. Heralded as making all MIT courses “open” to the world, much remains to be achieved if that promise is to be fully realized. The first gotcha was the realization that professors routinely distribute proprietary materials that have to be scrubbed from the web version. This issue quickly came to dominate the implementation of OCW.

The copyrighted content problem is linked to the advancement and compensation of faculty based on publication in fee based journals with elitist and slow paced review processes. While changing all of that could greatly increase the vigor of research, it would do so at the expense of those who have long labored to climb up and then heap upon their intellectual mountain.

The success of a system depends on the degree to which it serves the needs of its users. OCW does little to serve the needs of professors or students enrolled at MIT. How could it do better? Advancement at all levels, including even of students towards graduation, might be linked to achievements in the OCW domain. For example, every student could be required to tutor a student not enrolled at MIT and oversee that student doing the same. Faculty promotion could be based on the success of their courses measured by the size of their following and improvements to the open materials.

Changes in the reward system would not be sufficient. It is technology that defines the art of the possible and the software for collaborative work remains primitive. The wiki upon which this site and wikipedia are built is analogous to the Model T, in its first decade when it required hand cranking and frequent repair at the roadside! (OCW publishes to .PDF files which inhibit modification and are particularly inappropriate for collaboration.)

Software such as runs this wiki has no mechanism for managing competing versions so that one comes to dominate through the force of evidence and argument. Such shortcomings preserve the role of the faculty guide but hold back the development of a “global mind”.

Concomitant with the need for software that automatically keeps track of the intellectual horse races is the need to compensate the hard work that racing entails. Tying of advancement to performance may be sufficient for people already attached to institutions with professional tracks but it would not help unattached individuals to earn a living. There is also the problem that greatly improving the quality of free education tends rather to undermine the business model of academe. So scratch my suggestions above. They are not going to be implemented by academic institutions, not even MIT.

Despite the importance of ensuring that content is free to be modified, there are no good ways to separate this critical freedom from the meaning of free as in free beer. The intractability of this problem suggests that the pendulum of politically correct thought will swing back. Content creators need ownership with attendant rights to control access and demand payment. Before you react with dismay and horror to such a bald statement, let me add that the political pendulum will not swing until the system proves also to be a fountain of costless or at least very affordable and quite good content, better at that even than today’s wikis and open source forges.

In giving back ownership, such a system would recognize even small contributions. It would place them in a competitive environment that strongly rewards the emergence of consistent views. The dominant views will still have to compete. A preponderance of evidence accumulated by individuals who labor and speculate on the prevailing order will sometimes change it.

In this market in ideas, an author would start out by owning all of her creation. The publishing framework ought to ensure that dissenters can leave discreet markups which become prominent according to the accumulated weight of their evidence and argument. The author should not be able to remove these and will often negotiate to incorporate them. Or the owners of the embedded content might buy her out and make her content free as a way to draw more traffic into their more more vigorous properties. In this way, well worn paths may become free as a way to feed the budding branches where most growth and economic exchange occurs.

Thus reading the global mind will require significant investment, but really only for the developing parts. One might think of this as "pay to play", as if placing a bet. Since ownership leads to expectations of future revenues, there would arise equity and options markets also. Once admitted to a view, one could wager that it going to crumble or simply be surpassed by another that is growing faster. The values will be consistent with the effort required to create winning alternatives. Those which withstand onslaughts from within and without can become reference works leading to the frontiers of knowledge. There would necessarily be people who spread falsehoods, whether knowingly or not. The untruths will be highly vulnerable if others can bet on exposing them but this will not necessarily prevent mass delusions from enjoying a long run.

The developers who make this possible will raise the consciousness of the planet. It may be unappealing that those with greatest access will remain those with the greatest wealth, but it has ever been thus. The man of economic needs cannot be divorced from the man of intellectual aspirations. In all likelihood, the closer the marriage, the better it will be for both.

This does not answer the two questions which started out at the top of this page. Neither business plans nor legal charters are the sticking points. “The medium is the message” and the medium is far from done.