Unlocking knowledge

By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  January 12, 2011

"By and large the faculty is behind it," says Carson. "Over 80 percent is contributing."

Carson got his start exploring online education at Emerson College. He created a fiction writing course, the first distance-learning course offered at Emerson. "I was out there in the wilderness doing my thing when I saw MIT announce their intention" to start OCW. As OCW grew, schools from around the world approached them, wanting to get involved. "We began to help them informally at first," says Carson, but it became such a big project it's now an organization of its own: the OpenCourseWare Consortium, a 501(c)3 nonprofit for which Carson serves as president, involves over 250 participating universities and materials from 15,000 courses.

Carson outlines the difference between MIT OCW and traditional distance-learning models. The education experience on campus involves "getting the content, getting the learning experience, and getting the certification." Distance learning, he explains, tries to take that whole package and re-create it online. "The problem is, you're never going to be able to re-create the classroom online. You can't quite get there." With open education, you "don't disrupt the package that's on campus, and you don't re-create it, either."

What MIT OCW offers is the content. The school is now pairing with the social learning network OpenStudy, which offers the interactivity, to create opportunities to engage with other learners. So when you're scratching your head over a single-variable calculus problem, you can connect with others taking the same course and puzzle through it together.

'Changing too fast'
OCW and programs like it are not, however, going to upend traditional education systems on their own. Instead, OCW represents a segment of the ways people will be educated moving forward. What you're going to see more of is people creating educational collages — combinations of traditional academic scenarios (think lecture halls, seminars, professors, notebooks), work and travel experience (gap years, internships, co-op programs), and online options. Studying Greek tragedy isn't going to be enough to help in post-college life; right now, before institutions have caught up, it's the responsibility of the learner to tailor his or her education to best prepare for the shifting economical, technological, and employment landscape. "What we know," says Carson, "is that we've got to be firing on all cylinders." It's as true for institutions as it is for students.

Anya Kamenetz, author of DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, believes that these sorts of hybrids — combinations of OpenCourseWare, experiential, and classroom learning — embody the direction higher education should be going. She points to the failings of the current system. "The delivery hasn't changed with the available technology," she says. Or, as she writes in DIY U: "The world is changing too fast, and the need is growing too much, for institutions to keep up."

"You need to pick holes in the old systems to proceed," says Kamenetz. "You can't have schools resting on their laurels." She argues for learner-centric education, in which students are able to demonstrate their knowledge, so that people come out "not just with a diploma with a fancy name embossed on it, but with a portfolio of work."

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