“We are not providing an MIT education on the web…”

I’ve been re-watching some older announcements that describe open courseware initiatives, starting from one of the biggest, the MIT announcement of their OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiative in April, 2001. The title of this post actually comes from the video, around the 5:20 mark, (Video quoted under a CC-BY-NC-SA licence, more information available at: http://ocw.mit.edu/terms)

“Let me be very clear, we are not providing an MIT education on the Web. We are, however, providing core materials that are the infrastructure that undergirds that information. Real education, in our view, involves interaction between people. It’s the interaction between faculty and students, in our classrooms and our living group, in our laboratories that are the heart, the real essence, of an MIT education. “

While the OCW was going to be produced and used on campus, the development of OCW was seen as something that would make more time available for student interaction, not less. President Vest then goes on to confidently predict that OCW will not make any difference to enrolment, which is hardly surprising given that he has categorically excluded anyone from achieving an MIT education unless they enrol. We see here exactly the same discussion that keeps coming up: these materials can be used as augmenting materials in these conventional universities but can never, in the view of the President or Vice Chancellor, replace the actual experience of obtaining a degree from that institution.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I still think that the OCW initiative was excellent, generous and visionary but we are still looking at two fundamentally different use cases: the use of OCW to augment an existing experience and the use of OCW to bootstrap a completely new experience, which is not of the same order. It’s a discussion that we keep having – what happens to my Uni if I use EdX courses from another institution? Well, ok, let’s ask that question differently. I will look at this from two sides with the introduction of a new skill and knowledge area that becomes ubiquitous,  in my sphere, Computer Science and programming. Let’s look at this in terms of growth and success.

What happens if schools start teaching programming to first year level? 

Let’s say that we get programming into every single national curriculum for secondary school and we can guarantee that students come in knowing how to program to freshman level. There are two ways of looking at this and the first, which we have probably all seen to some degree, is to regard the school teaching as inferior and re-teach it. The net result of this will be bored students, low engagement and we will be wasting our time. The second, far more productive, approach is to say “Great! You can program. Now let’s do some Computer Science.” and we use that extra year or so to increase our discipline knowledge or put breadth courses back in so our students come out a little more well-rounded. What’s the difference between students learning it from school before they come to us, or through an EdX course on fundamental programming after they come to us?

Not much, really, as long as we make sure that the course meets our requirements – and, in fact, it gives us bricks-and-mortar-bound entities more time to do all that face-to-face interactive University stuff that we know students love and from which they derive great benefit. University stops being semi-vocational in some aspects and we leap into knowledge construction, idea generation, big projects and the grand dreams that we always talk about, yet often don’t get to because we have to train people in basic programming, drafting, and so on. Do we give them course credit? No, because they’re assumed knowledge, or barrier tested, and they’re not necessarily part of our structure anymore.

What happens if no-one wants to take my course anymore?

Now, we know that we can change our courses because we’ve done it so many times before over the history of the Academy – Latin, along with Greek the language of scholarship, was only used in half of the University publications of 1800. Let me wander through a classical garden for a moment to discuss the nature of change from a different angle, that of decline. Languages had a special place in the degrees of my University with Latin and Greek dominating and then with the daring possibility of allowing substitution of French or German for Latin or Greek from 1938. It was as recently as 1958 that Latin stopped being compulsory for high school graduation in Adelaide although it was still required for the study of Law – student demand for Latin at school therefore plummeted and Latin courses started being dropped from the school curriculum. The Law Latin requirement was removed around 1969-1970, which then dropped any demand for Latin even further. The reduction in the number of school teachers who could teach Latin required the introduction of courses at the University for students who had studied no Latin at all – Latin IA entered the syllabus. However, given that in 2007 only one student at all of the schools across the state of South Australian (roughly 1.2-1.4 million people) studied Latin in the final year of school, it is apparent that if this University wishes to teach Latin, it has to start by teaching all of Latin. This is a course, and a discipline, that is currently in decline. My fear is that, one day, someone will make the mistake of thinking that we no longer need scholars of this language. And that worries me, because I don’t know what people 30 years from now will actually want, or what they could add to the knowledge that we already have of one of our most influential civilisations.

This decline is not unique to Latin (or Greek, or classics in general) but a truly on-line course experience would allow us to actually pool those scholars we have left and offer scaled resources out for much longer than isolated pockets in real offices can potentially manage but, as President Vest notes, a storehouse of Latin texts does not a course make. What reduced the demand for Latin? Possibly the ubiquity of the language that we use which is derived from Latin combined with a change of focus away from a classical education towards a more job- and achievement-oriented (semi-vocational) style of education. If you ask me, programming could as easily go this way in about 20 years, once we have ways to let machines solve problems for us. A move towards a less go-go-go culture, smarter machines and a resurgence of the long leisure cycles associated with Science Fiction visions of the future and suddenly it is the engineers and the computer scientists who are looking at shrinking departments and no support in the schools. Let me be blunt: course popularity and desirability rises, stabilises and falls, and it’s very hard to tell if we are looking at a parabola or a pendulum. With that in mind, we should be very careful about how we define our traditions and our conventions, especially as our cunning tools for supporting on-line learning and teaching get better and better. Yes, interaction is an essential part of a good education, no argument at all, but there is an implicit assumption of critical mass that we have seen, time and again, to implicitly support this interaction in a face-to-face environment that is as much a function of popularity and traditionally-associated prestige as it is of excellence.

What are MIT doing now?

I look at the original OCW release and I agree that, at time of production, you could not reproduce the interaction between people that would give you an MIT education. But our tools are better now. They are, quite probably not close enough yet to give you an “MIT of the Internet” but should this be our goal? Not the production of a facsimile of the core materials that might, with MIT instructors, turn into a course, but the commitment to developing the tools that actually reproduce the successful components of the learning experience with group and personal interaction, allowing the formation of what we used to call a physical interactive experience in a virtual side? That’s where I think the new MIT initiatives are showing us how these things can work now, starting from their original idealistic roots and adding the technology of the 21st Century. I hope that other, equally prestigious, institutions are watching this, carefully.

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