The Future of OpenCourseWare: Kate James Talks About The Next Decade of OCW at MIT

May 27, 2011

Education-Portal.com recently attended the OpenCourseWare Consortium's annual conference, where we met Kate James, Senior Manager of User Experience for the MIT OCW team. We caught up with her after the conference to learn more about where her team is taking MIT as they move into their second decade of OpenCourseWare.

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By Megan Driscoll

Kate James from the MIT OCW team

Kate James started off in the liberal arts, with both bachelor's and master's degrees in English. But a little experimentation in HTML in the 1990s led her to pursue a full-time career in Web design, and she's since held Web communications positions at Brown University and Textron. Ms. James is currently working on the OpenCourseWare team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where they're celebrating ten years of OCW.

Q. You're the Senior Manager of User Experience for MIT's OCW project. What does that job entail?

A. It's still a fairly new position. I started here as Production Manager, but wanted to spend more time focusing on the user-facing side of our work than the production side. I moved into this position last fall and have been preparing for the redesign we're about to kick off.

I set course standards, work with the course owners to plan how the content should be presented, work with the Production Team to think about new functionality, manage the YouTube and iTunes U channels (and Facebook and Twitter accounts) and perform general site maintenance activities.

Q. What is your personal philosophy regarding open education?

A. For me it's such a no-brainer that educational resources should be available for everyone with the drive to use them that I don't know that I have a philosophy. I tend to focus more on where I am working, which means I worry a lot about whether we're publishing things correctly, quickly enough and with enough metadata. I wish we could provide more insight into how the materials are used, in what order, etc., rather than just tossing them out for a la carte use. But I think we're heading in that direction.

Q. MIT was one of the first American pioneers in OpenCourseWare. However, in the early years they were accused of just throwing materials up on the site without much thought for the end user's experience. In what ways has your work with the organization changed that?

A. To be honest, I think much of our activity could still be labeled in that way. When your mission is to publish the entire curriculum of an academic institution and you don't have infinite resources, you're going to have no choice but to do some of this. As long as part of our mission is still to publish the whole curriculum, some 'throwing' is going to go on. What's important to me - and what we have been working toward - is to accept that this is a reality and work on projects in parallel to facilitate reuse, including on our own site: much of OCW Scholar (see below) is a remixing of previously published material.

One small example is a big project we undertook last month to rethink how media assets are handled in our CMS. Instead of simply linking to discrete files (MP4s, transcript files, etc.), we're now using metadata to connect these together as related objects and are providing RSS feeds with all of this data for reuse. I'm looking forward to finding ways to use this information to re-present how we display these resources on our own site, as well as how others will use the content downstream.

Q. Because MIT was such an early and successful adopter of OCW, many organizations see your team as a model. Does that influence your work, and if so, in what ways?

A. I hope that when other organizations look at our model, they don't endeavor to copy it exactly, but rather learn from our lessons and improve. We are a large team and we are organized as we are in order to meet the mission I mentioned above: publish the full curriculum. If a similar organization's mission were something along the lines of 'publish the best material from this organization,' or 'make it easy for willing faculty to publish their materials,' I would expect to see much different structures for such organizations. But I also do want to note that the process and the infrastructure should be the first consideration, not the headcount.

Q. As open education grows, many new models are developing that are designed with the Internet user in mind, rather than as a byproduct of existing university courses. Are there any initiatives at MIT to move your OCW offerings in that direction?

A. OCW Scholar is, I think, a move in that direction. These are courses designed for an independent learner to completely master a course-worth of material without outside help or resources (including, usually, a textbook). The material as it appears in these courses have never actually been taught at MIT in that order - and sometimes not at all (i.e., they were created especially for these courses on OCW).

It was a very new process for us, and we discovered quickly that a team staffed to collect, review and publish isn't necessarily a team that can function as instructional designers. I think that if you really want to staff an OCW (or OER) for the purpose of generating new materials, you need to consider instructional design expertise.

Q. MIT and the OCW consortium are celebrating their ten year anniversary. In broad strokes, what is the MIT OCW team's vision for the next decade?

A. First and foremost, continue work on the original mission: to publish all of MIT's curriculum. Even with more than 2,050 courses, we haven't published all of the courses taught at MIT, and areas such as biology change frequently enough that we need to update those courses often in order to offer current research and methodology to our users.

Beyond that, our goal is to expand our already-broad reach by an order of magnitude. We estimate that we have reached 100 million users with OCW (through our website, our mirror program and via educator use of the materials in classrooms around the world), and would like to expand beyond that to one billion. This is going to require functionality and publishing capacity that we can barely imagine now.

Q. You recently attended the OCW consortium conference as a representative of MIT. Do you think that anything you experienced at the conference will influence the development of the MIT OCW project? Please elaborate.

A. It's always humbling to see how other organizations have taken the idea that MIT conceived and expanded it beyond what we have done. I am particularly thrilled by organizations such as Open.Michigan from the University of Michigan that publish using such lean teams. Open Study, obviously, is a partner we will continue to watch and to work with. The analytics work coming out of the Josef Stefan Institute in Ljubljana, Slovenia also has great potential to impact how we offer related content to our users (perhaps even in real time).

Q. Finally, I'd like to offer you the opportunity to share anything you'd like about OCW, MIT and the world of open education.

A. I think it's important that this community work in the most collaborative way possible toward results. We have a lot of opportunities to share information, but so often we all return home and nothing happens again. Or meetings are convened to address an issue, and we are so easily tripped up by how each of us works as individual organizations that it's difficult to really move forward in a collaborative way. A key to this, I think, is for each organization to understand their strengths and look for partnerships where expertise is limited. We won't all be innovators: some of us have to be the platforms (or raw material) on which true innovation happens. I think when we find a collaborative model using standard practices and processes (metadata is king!), the OER world is going to get really exciting.

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