open courseware

The Student-engineered Open Textbook: Chemical Process Dynamics and Controls

Jane Park, December 4th, 2008

It is commonly known that students learn by doing—by practicing, rather than simply soaking in, the information that is taught them in the classroom. But it is also commonly known that anyone can obtain information; the internet is chock-full of the stuff; all one has to do is type in a few key words and hit search. The reality is that formal education, aka the classroom, can no longer be, and no longer is, just one side of this perceived divorce in education: the acquisition of knowledge versus the practice of it. 

Open education acknowledges that information is abundant, and that it takes someone to organize, interpret, and make it meaningful. This is one value that formal and higher education still offers the net generation, those bred on Google and Wikipedia. The culling of data becomes the responsibility of professionals, their peers, and their students—the results of which are high quality educational resources available to the rest of the world. 

The Chemical Engineering Department at the University of Michigan has taken this idea of synthesis and run with it. They have integrated the practice of knowledge into class curriculum, by requiring students to contribute to an open textbook in wiki format—Chemical Process Dynamics and Controls. Since 2006, senior chemical engineering students have been developing this resource, building off of the preceding year’s work. The result is a comprehensive and dynamic textbook, available for free on the web, that is both high quality and openly licensed under CC BY. Though you must be a member of the class to directly edit the wiki text, nothing prevents the rest of the world from copying and deriving it for their own uses—even republishing it and distributing it at a low cost in concrete form is possible.

Originally conceptualized by Peter Woolf (Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering) with help from Leeann Fu, the system of textbook creation is anything but haphazard. Each week, a team of students is selected to become “experts” on a particular topic. The students research and present on the topic, adding the relevant text and diagrams to the wiki. The wiki’s content is further vetted by “the faculty and Graduate Student Instructors (GSIs)” who “act as managing editors, selecting broad threads for the text and suggesting references.” They also check for copyright issues, and the students are encouraged to re-use public domain materials.

In contrast to other courses, the students take an active role in their education by selecting which material in their assigned section is most useful and decide on the presentation approach. Furthermore, students create example problems that they present in poster sessions during class to help the other students master the material.

In addition, full class lectures in video format and powerpoint presentations are available on the wiki, also under CC BYCC BY is the most appropriate license for educational materials, since all one has to do is attribute the original authors. The freedoms to copy, adapt, remix, and redistribute are crucial to advancing progress in education.

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Stanford Courses Available via BitTorrent

Jane Park, November 17th, 2008

BitTorrent, a peer-to-peer file sharing protocol, has been embraced by Stanford University in distributing its online engineering courses. Stanford Engineering Everywhere (SEE) launched back in September, offering its open courseware under CC BY-NC-SA. Thanks to Ernesto at TorrentFreak for the tip:

“While some universities restrict the use of BitTorrent clients, others embrace the popular flilesharing protocol and use it to spread knowledge. Stanford University is one of the few to realize that BitTorrent does not equal piracy. They use BitTorrent to give away some of their engineering courses, with some success.”

Why does BitTorrent make sense for Stanford Engineering courses? Because unlike some of their OCW (Open CourseWare) counterparts, SEE offers more than just video lectures; Stanford Engineering Everywhere “provides downloads of full course materials including syllabi, handouts, homework and exams. Online study sessions through Facebook and other social sites are encouraged” (Stanford News Service). In addition to BitTorrent, the courses are also available via iTunes and YouTube.

You, too, can learn robotics!

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Two MIT OCW Courses Reach Million Visit Milestone

Jane Park, October 10th, 2008

A long-standing provider of open courseware, MITOpenCourseWare reached a million visit milestone yesterday for two of their online courses: 8.01 Physics I: Classical Mechanics and 18.06 Linear Algebra. The courses are two of MIT’s most popular to date, taught by renowned professors Walter Lewin and Gilbert Strang. From MIT’s media coverage on Lewin:

Professor Lewin is an international webstar. He is well-known at MIT and beyond for his dynamic, inspiring and engaging lecture style. His courses are also among the most downloaded at iTunes U. 8.01 Physics I: Classical Mechanics explains the basic concepts of Newtonian mechanics, fluid mechanics, and kinetic gas theory, and a variety of interesting topics such as binary stars, neutron stars, and black holes.

On Strang:

Strang is a 50-year mathematics veteran whose teaching style is recognized internationally. Linear Algebra introduces mathematical concepts that include matrix theory, systems of equations, vector spaces, and positive definite matrices. “Everyone has the capacity to learn mathematics,” says Strang. “If you can offer a little guidance, and some examples, viewers discover that a whole world is open.

8.01 Physics I: Classical Mechanics offers lecture notes, exams with solutions, complete videotaped lectures and their accompanying transcripts under CC BY-NC-SA. 18.06 Linear Algebra offers (interactive) Java applets with sound in addition to video lectures and translations into Chinese, Portuguese, and Spanish, also under CC BY-NC-SA. CC BY-NC-SA allows for these kinds of adaptations and derivations of material—and translation is a crucial step in broadening access to a global audience. 

There are other and more interesting ways to adapt material, however, and we are curious to know how the visitors constituting the 1,000,000+ hits of these two courses (and others) have actually used the materials. Since educational needs vary contextually, it would be beneficial to know what types of adaptations are being made beyond translation. Of the 600 visits per day that these courses average, how many of them result in derivations? These, and other questions (such as visitor demographic, global reach, etc.) are things to consider as the OCW project continues to expand and evolve. The future impact of OER lie in the ways information is conceptualized, organized, and related; simply offering up free content on the web is no longer enough—remember David Wiley’s quote from OpenEd 08: “If my students can Google it, I don’t have to teach it.” As progressive models of OER develop and evolve, it will be interesting to see how OCW’s scope and impact also grows.

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Stanford Engineering Tries its Hand at OCW

Jane Park, September 17th, 2008

Emulating MIT and a host of other OCW institutions, the Stanford School of Engineering has jumped on the OER bandwagon by releasing ten of its courses online in multiple formats. The pilot open courseware portal, known as Stanford Engineering Everywhere (SEE), is Stanford’s first move towards offering full-length course videos and other materials online for free and open use. SEE’s current ten course offerings consist of “instruction videos, reading lists and materials and class assignments” in three subject areas: computer science, artificial intelligence, and linear systems and optimization.

All course materials are open for re-use under CC BY-NC-SA. The general site content on Stanford Engineering Everywhere is licensed CC BY.

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