Note: This is the MITOCW license.  Included to explain how Open Courses are protected from mis-use.

I wanted to understand how the Open Source movement is being experienced in the education community; I had heard that MIT is a big participant in Open Source Courses and found this to be true when I went to:

The MIT Open Course Ware tagline is:

Unlocking Knowledge,

Empowering Minds.

Free lecture notes, exams, and videos from MIT. No registration required.

And I learned that:

“MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) is a web-based publication of virtually all MIT course content. OCW is open and available to the world and is a permanent MIT activity.”

Things were going quite well on this exploration, so I proceeded to their home page:

What I found made my high hope for free online courses  a bit less-high:  here is a screen-shot:

A game of “What’s Wrong with this Picture?” would include:

  • Crowded
  • Crowded


  • Crowded

Hoping that the quality of this HOME page was not indicative of the quality of their course pages, I went deeper into the site.

“Most Visited Courses”: that sounds good.

Oh dear, look at this screen-shot:

The design has not changed from the HOME page, still:

  • Crowded

but now it also contains

  • Too much text
  • Dull colors
  • Almost as much sales-pitch as free-content

OK, maybe the course will be better than the course listings.  I chose ” Problems of Philosophy (MIT Course # 24.00)”

Screen-shot (it’s OK to put your hands over your eyes and just peek through your fingers):

I did a second screen-shot so you could see the Course Description which is on the lower half of the page:

Now you can see the  the entire page.  Oh, you think the Course Description type is small – YES! It is small; not to mention the fact that the information is slight in quantity.  From these lines you are supposed to make a decision to venture further into this, free course world.

Frequent readers of this blog know that one of my issues with web pages designed like this is that the designers seem unaware that it is OK to put information on web pages.  The designer of this page must have forgotten that web pages don’t waste trees, that their budget manager won’t be angry due to high publication costs or, that the page will bore the reader if it includes details (psst, see that column on the left-side of the page, your reader can use it to leave your typed words whenever they become bored; so, please, include details).

This site page violates the rule “Avoid ‘Dumping’ a Face-to-Face Course onto the Web”.

What we have here is a clear case of “dumping”, honestly, doesn’t the center column look just like a page from the printed course catalog?  Perhaps that is why they felt the need to give us  an abbreviated course description.

The rule stated above is one of the “Fundamentals of Teaching Online”, in a text by Simonson, Smaldino, Albright & Zvack in Teaching and Learning at a Distance (2009, p. 248).

Obviously the folks in charge of MIT’s Open Course Ware (MITOCW) never read this book, or did not think that they needed to pay attention to “Fundamentals” because, after all, if MIT “builds it they will come” (reference to a memorable line in a baseball movie.  Don’t worry,  I won’t get into trouble, baseball references are allowed since this is October, a very important time in the baseball season).

I went on to look at the page “Lecture Notes”

I took this screen-shot of the first “Lecture Note” listed which is a PDF:

Yep, 3 1/8 pages of text.  No links, no images – now that’s what I call “DUMPING”.

To discuss use of non-text items, we return to Simonson (et al, 2009, p. 127) “Planning for Instruction at a Distance”

“In revising traditional classroom materials, consider ways to illustrate key concepts, or topics, using tables, figures, and other visual representations”

If any revising was done, it was not in the area of classroom materials.  Lets turn to planning activities as discussed in Simonson (et al, 2009, p. 127)

“Plan activities that encourage interactivity.  Plan activities that allow for student group work.”

The Activities in this course are “Argument Analysis Exercises” and papers.  Here is a screen-shot of an exercise:

No interactivity.

No group work.

MITOCW also violates the guideline

“Planning for Instruction at a Distance:   Keep in mind that courses previously taught in traditional classrooms may need to be retooled.” (Simonson et al, 2009, p. 127)

The design of this course indicates that no thought was given to how this face-to-face class would be translated into the online learning environment.  When this lecture was delivered live, the instructor may have been very animated and when she talks of Sherlock Holmes being imperfect, she could have injected humor, or a casual reference to how many prominently-considered novels have prominently-deviant main characters.  Nothing in the MITOCW PDF brings warmth to the words.  Reflecting upon the imperfect nature of Sherlock Holmes would have been fun and enlivened this pdf filled with less-enlivened names like Descartes and Anselm.

Perhaps this image would prompt reflection:

Photo link

See, deviant-character images can be fun (yes, I said FUN.  It is OK to have FUN in SCHOOL!)

I feel that I may been overly-critical, so, as I turning away from this MITOCW course, I feel the need to make the following disclaimer:

As an online learner (and instructional design trainee) I no longer see a page of text as flat, foldable, and discardable; to me it is a thin layer of information covering a portal to the internet.  An MITOCW PDF that meets my expectation of what pages can do in the internet-enhanced world, would be peppered with links to references and further learning-prompts, and imagaes (I’m sure I’m not the only one who wants to see a picture of Descartes).

Example of how to break-up a text filled page:

This photo is part of a news item:

“Descartes’s skull given to his school: The skull of philosopher René Descartes is to be moved from Paris to the school where he studied as a boy.”

(Link to this article – see how easy it is to web-ize chunks of text!)

I am not alone in my desire for “non-textual communication”:

“Planning for Instruction at a distance guideline: Consider ways to illustrate key concepts or topics, using tables and figures.” (Simonson, et al, 2009 p. 127)

If this page was a portal, when arguing against the existence of a squircle (a square circle) the instructor could embed an animation of a person trying to mold a square into a circle; when she pushed one corner it would go in, but pop back out when she released pressure.  The animation would end with the character walking away in frustration. (Ok, not hilarious, but it is a slight diversion, visual and mental.)

If I lost you with the word “animation” you could do a google image search for “Squircle”.  Yes, of course I performed this search – and I can tell you it took google .31 seconds to give me about 10, 700 results; one of which was this treasure:

This is a magic trick available to you for the bargain price of $7.50 from  Hank Lee’s Magic Factory.

Description of item:

“One of the cutest, most surprising effects to come down the pike in a long time.  A circle is cut from a sheet of newspaper and shown.  Upon opening the same piece of newspaper, the hole is a SQUARE! It’s great — you’ll love it.  Comes with a sample paper, after that you’ll have no trouble making your own.”

The next Guideline addresses the issue of interactivity.

With this PDF sheet of paper the only chance for interactivity would be if the professor added questions to the end of the lecture and required the student to e-mail the answers to her.  They do interact, but in a very distant manner; to be true interaction, the professor would need to be looking at her e-mail when the student sends the answers.

  • If she responded right away with “thanks for the submission” that could be considered interactions; but,
  • if she responded right away with “your answers show great understanding of the principles raised.
  • How do you think Descartes would respond to this assignment, would he consider it to “exist”, or not?  I intend this question to be fun, you may get 5 extra points if provide a thoughtful response.

Stay tuned for  – Open Those Courses, Part 2

Resources cited:

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2009). Teaching and Learning at a Distance: Foundations of Distance Education (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.