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Archive for the ‘MIT’ Category

MIT quits open-source Kuali project

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 18, 2010

What happened: Recently, MIT announced it would discontinue partnership with the Kuali foundation on an open-source project called Kuali Student. This came, according to an official press release, after extensive discussions with board members and people and groups directly involved in developing this student-administration software.

What the press release didn’t say is why MIT made this decision. It seems likely that the decision was financial. According to a Chronicle of Higher Education article, MIT is the second higher education institution in the last several months to pull out of Kuali Student; Florida State University withdrew in February due to budget cuts.

Why it matters: MIT has been a strong and vocal supporter of openness in higher education and research. During my employ at the Institute, administrators officially adopted an open access policy which was designed to support the widest possible circulation of ideas, projects, and research generated by MIT-affiliated researchers. MIT has embraced the open education movement, investing copious time, energy, and dollars into its OpenCourseWare project.

If MIT’s decision to withdraw from Kuali Student is primarily a cost-cutting measure–and again, we don’t know for sure if this is the rationale–this does not bode well for open education. It’s all too easy to treat the idea of openness as a luxury worth pursuing during times of plenty and simple to abandon during times of famine. But the openness movement, in all its iterations (software, hardware, education, access, and so on), is not a luxury. It’s a necessity. Transparency problems are part of what got us into this mess in the first place, especially in higher education where access to high-quality learning is still sequestered off behind a series of wrought-iron gates that cost too much–too much time, too much money, too much sacrifice–for many of our learners to be willing or able to gain entry.

We are no longer in an era where we can afford to make powerful, empowering education available only to the few. Indeed, one can easily argue that it’s not openness but opacity that is the luxury.

Posted in academia, education, intellectual property, MIT, open education, open source | 1 Comment »

notes from the {gendered} revolution

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on October 28, 2009

I don’t like talking about gender politics.

It’s not because I’m not interested. It’s not because I don’t see the value of engaging with social issues tied to gender and identity. It’s not because I don’t have tons to say about these issues.

It’s because most of the time, I feel marginalized by the rhetoric of gender, identity, and belonging. I feel like this rhetoric is talking about someone else–it certainly doesn’t represent my values, needs, or beliefs. And I hate feeling marginalized. I hate feeling unnoticed. So I’d much rather not show up to the conversation than feel like nobody’s interested in my needs.

Let me try to explain why by backing up a step to explain why I’m writing about this issue at all.

It came up in a conversation about a recent seminar with Leah Buechley, an educational researcher who directs the High-Low Tech research group at MIT’s Media Lab. Buechley’s recent work focuses on computational textiles, and a big chunk of her focus is on embedding conductive thread and circuitry into clothing.

There’s sewing involved. And when sewing gets mashed in with computation, smart people start talking about gender.

Though I’m going to argue below that the typical conversation about sewing, computation, and gender is marginalizing for some people and therefore problematic, this is in no way intended to discount the important work that Buechley and others are doing. It’s no secret that women are actively avoiding the field of computer science; indeed, one of the more prominent studies in this area is a project at Carnegie Mellon University, where 1995 statistics indicated that women made up only 8% of the entire incoming class of computer science undergraduate majors. After four years of intensive interventions, that number increased to 37%–a roaring success from one perspective and an ongoing failure from another.

Add to this the fact that during the course of this particular study, women changed majors or transferred out of Carnegie Mellon at more than twice the rate of men–30 percent of women changed majors or transferred, compared to 12% of male computer science majors.1 Carnegie Mellon, remember, is renowned for its computer science program, and admission into this program and graduation from it are presumably a source of great pride for students.

The numbers are even more dismal for graduate programs in computer science. Take a look at the steady numbers decline: Women make up 27% of master’s degrees in computer science and 13% of PhD’s; they constitute 7.8% of computer science and computer engineering faculty and 2.7% of tenured faculty in the same field.2

So, yes: The struggle is real. The issue of gender equity is salient and important. And the work of people like Buechley is essential to interrogating the ongoing gender gap in the most gender-biased field we have. Not only that, but anyone who knows me knows I like nothing better than a good equity battle.

So why, when a group of us were discussing how Buechley’s computational textiles work addresses gender disparities, did I get so uncomfortable? Why was I praying for the conversation to drift off into some other topic?

I think my discomfort was mainly because of the rhetoric of gender politics–specifically, the assumptions that undergird issues of gender, equity, and inclusion. They are assumptions like the following:

  • Women often prefer balanced lives (so they don’t stick with computer science, a field that values total immersion).
  • That (female) researcher must be childless (or unmarried), because otherwise she’d never have the time to do that kind of work.
  • Women generally don’t like competing with their colleagues (so they’re less likely to get research funding and tenure).
  • Women often don’t like to argue because they worry about seeming pushy, arrogant, or aggressive (so they’re less vocal in academic or intellectual debate).

I am, it appears, a traitor to my gender.

I don’t doubt that the above assumptions are true for the majority of women3. They just don’t happen to be true for me. And to be clear, this isn’t about my age (32), marital status (single), or family status (childless). This is about the generalizations that get reified through statements like the above. This is essentialism at its most benign and insidious. Women are like this; they tend to want that; they make decisions because this.

I’m not like this; I don’t want that; I don’t make decisions because this. But try saying that out loud some time and see how far it gets you. After a sufficient amount of time, you have two choices: Either try to figure out what’s wrong with you, or try to figure out what’s wrong with the rhetoric.

Because it’s easy, smart people tend to lump people into one of two gender categories: You’re either female or you’re male, and if you don’t align with the values assigned to those categories, you’re probably the exception that proves the rule. Because I’m argumentative, childless, and more rational than emotional, I’m a ‘less feminine woman’; and in our culture, ‘less feminine’ acts in opposition to ‘woman’ such that the very phrasing of that description struggles against itself for meaning.

(For the record, I think the same is true for some men. If you want balance, time to raise your kids, or to be liked even at the expense of your career, then you’re a ‘less masculine man’ with the same struggle inherent in the phrase.)

Too often, strangely enough, liberal feminist rhetoric only adds to the problem. Women should be free, they say, to raise children, to enter traditionally male careers like law and computer science without fear of marginalization or harassment, to make decisions informed by both intellect and emotion, to cry–even at work–without fear of looking weak. And they’re right. Of course they’re right.

But women should also be free to adopt traditionally male mannerisms without fear of seeming ‘less feminine.’ They should be free to walk how they like, to talk how they like, to dress and study and write how they like, without fear of the double penalty of being both not-male and not-feminine-enough.

Gender, after all, is an identity continuum and not a duality. This should go without saying, though it does at times bear repeating.

And the fact that this post has, ounce for ounce, taken me longer to write than anything else on this blog is more telling than anything else (and even still, I fear I haven’t conveyed myself successfully or completely). It proves just how much I hate gender politics, and how important I think it is to talk through exactly why.

1. These stats come from a fantastic study by Jane Margolis, Allan Fisher, and Faye Miller called “The Anatomy of Interest: Women in Undergraduate Computer Science.” (Women’s Studies Quarterly, Summer 2000, pp. 104-127. Accessible with subscription at

2. Spertus, Ellen (1991). “Why Are There So Few Female Computer Scientists?” MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory Technical Report 1315, August 1991.

3. And note that I’m tackling these issues from the perspective of a white woman; I couldn’t even begin to address how the assumptions, values, and discourses about ‘how women are’ marginalize nonwhite women in exponentially intense, insidious ways.

Posted in academia, culture, feminism, gender politics, human rights, MIT, politics, social justice | 18 Comments »

liveblogging the Home Inc Conference: keynote speaker Alan November

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on October 24, 2009

From Alan November’s website:

Alan November is an international leader in education technology. He began his career as an oceanography teacher and dorm counselor at an island reform school for boys in Boston Harbor. He has been director of an alternative high school, computer coordinator, technology consultant, and university lecturer. He has helped schools, governments and industry leaders improve the quality of education through technology.

His opener:
“I used to think I knew the truth. I don’t know it anymore. So whatever I say is only good enough to criticize.”

Here’s why, according to Alan November, we’ve been able to spend over $10 billion on putting technology into schools over the last decade without making any gains on learning. He pulls much of his arguments from Shoshana Zuboff’s 1989 book, The Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power.

1. The real solution isn’t bolting technology on top of what we used to do.
November pointed to Zuboff’s notion of “automating,” which is the process of using technology to automatically transfer information. “When you automate,” November said, “at best, you only get incremental improvement. Not surprisingly to me, you often get a decline in quality.

According to November, connecting our classrooms to the Internet has lowered the quality of education int he U.S. Plagiarism has skyrocketed. “Everywhere I go,” he said, “teachers complain about how students are taking the easiest route to learning” through copying and pasting and other plagiaristic approaches.

2. The real issue isn’t technology; the real issue is control. We have teachers and administrators controlling learning and we need to ask how well (or poorly) that serves the needs of the learners.

Here are the solutions November offers:

Zuboff’s notion of informating:
Giving people access to information they’ve never had before. “I’ve been to schools that are technology-rich and information-poor. Teachers don’t have the right information at the right time to do the right job. Students don’t have the right information at the right time to do the right job. Parents do not have the right information–ever, hardly.”

Identify new opportunities for collaboration. This is, according to November, a mark that you’re beginning to use technology well.
“The one-room schoolhouse was a great idea. We need to go back to that. The very structure of the school system is what’s in the way. That structure is a control model.”

If you do those two things well, November argued, then more and more people become self directed. They don’t need an organization to tell them what to do. That’s the ultimate skill, according to November.

“One of the most important questions we need to ask is: Who should own the learning?” Since technology is typically used to reinforce teacher control, we need to think of new strategies for using technology to shift control over learning toward learners and, November argues, parents. He argued that the best thing schools can do is to “build capacity in every family as centers of learning.

“But I can say this until I’m blue. i don’t think anybody’s going to do this–because it falls outside of the boundaries of the current collaboration people have.”

Time? Money? Energy? “It’s all red herrings,” said November. “It’s all about control!”

November says the biggest technology from his perspective that can help lead to a shift in control is Skype.

my thoughts on November’s keynote:

It’s refreshing to see his energy and enthusiasm about rethinking the use of technology in the classroom. I worry, though, that his stance on transferring agency to the family could just shift the control issues from the schools to the family structure. In brief, it’s not just control that makes schools worrisome institutions; it’s the colonizing effect of middle class values on members of non-dominant classes and ethnicities. Collaborate with families and you get the same old divide we’ve been seeing for much more than the last decade. Middle class kids will get inculcated with middle class values, which we know lead to success; lower class kids will learn a different set of values, thereby reifying the divide between the haves and the have-nots.

Add to this the increasing influence of new media technologies–and the participation gap that Henry Jenkins has pointed to–and this concern becomes even more vital.

Control, after all, is much less simple (and simplistic) than we try to make it appear. Add to that the fact that institutional control has nuances that aren’t easy to talk about in the keynote structure.

“If you don’t have the right mission,” November said, “it doesn’t matter what technology you have.” Yes, and we need to consider the broader (if tacit and unexplored) mission of the American education system.

Posted in literacy, liveblogging, MIT, new media | 1 Comment »

what is learning (in new media)?

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on September 9, 2009

Alert blogtrollers may have seen multiple posts recently with titles identical to the one accompanying this post–that’s because we’ve been asked by learning scientist and new media researcher Kylie Peppler to address this very concern. The question–what is learning in new media?–is too broad for anyone to address within the context of a single blogpost, but if we all set to work, we might get that turkey stripped down to its bones by the end of the night.

My chunk of the turkey is time.

When I joined Twitter, I lurked for months and months without tweeting a thing. When I finally did join the community as a good, earnest citizen, I started out slowly and picked up speed as I learned to negotiate the community’s norms and embrace the valued practices of the space. Now, a year and a half later, I can communicate fairly clearly the spoken and tacit norms of the Twitterspace.

I did the same thing with Facebook, Wikipedia, and blogging–looking around for months before joining the community. By doing so, by taking the time to consider the space I was entering, I was able to reflect on others’ practices before offering up my own. I read thousands of blogs before starting my own. I worked with friends to learn how to edit Wikipedia. And I was coerced by another friend to join Facebook; the rest was up to me.

I recently spent some time working with Scratch, a simple visual programming language designed for young learners. As the site explains,

Scratch is designed to help young people (ages 8 and up) develop 21st century learning skills. As they create and share Scratch projects, young people learn important mathematical and computational ideas, while also learning to think creatively, reason systematically, and work collaboratively.

I’ve designed exactly two projects in Scratch; the first was about a year ago, when a colleague spent the morning helping me work up a little thing I call Jimmy Eats World.

To play this project, click the green flag in the upper right.

I’m annoyed with myself that I didn’t make the flying hippo actually disappear at the end of the project, and if I wanted to I could open up the program and make it so. Or I could turn the main sprite, the walking cat, into a hammerhead shark announcing my blog’s url.

I could do that if I wanted to, because I am a highly resourceful independent learner who has the passion and the time to devote to projects like this. I find them personally and epistemologically meaningful–I feel enriched, and I feel that the time I devote to these kinds of projects makes me a better, more useful and proficient blogger and educational researcher.

Time, the friend of the highly resourceful learner, is the enemy of teaching. Time: There’s never enough and even if there were, it couldn’t be spent on tinkering. There’s content to cover, and not just in the name of high stakes tests. A teacher’s job–one made ever more challenging by the social revolution–is to equip learners with the knowledge, proficiencies, and dispositions that will suit them well for future learning. There comes a time when the teacher must say, It’s time to stop with Scratch and start on something else.

Which is a deep shame, because it’s the tinkering, the ability to immerse oneself in participatory media or a learning platform, that fosters a real fluency with the space.

This is a key feature of what it means to learn in new media: the choice to engage with certain tools, to join up with certain affinity spaces, beyond the time required by schools. Clay Shirky writes that the days are gone when we could expect to do things only for money; we’re in an era when the greatest innovations emerge not for money but for love.

If learning in new media takes time, passion, and some combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, then on its surface school seems to run anathema to a new media education. In fact, it may be that engagement with participatory practices is exactly what schools need at a time when they are struggling to remain relevant to the real world needs, experiences, and expertises into which learners will ultimately emerge.

Posted in academia, academics, blogging, Clay Shirky, creativity, education, Facebook, graduate school, MIT, new media, Ph.D., schools, shark attack, social revolution | 10 Comments »

opening up scholarship: generosity among grinches

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 5, 2009

why academic research and open exchange of ideas are like that bottle of raspberry vinaigrette salad dressing you’ve had in the back of your fridge since last summer

The folks over at Good Magazine are tossing up a series of blogposts under the heading “We Like to Share.”

The articles are actually a series of interviews with creative types in a variety of fields who share one characteristic: they believe that sharing of ideas and content is valuable and important. The edited interviews are being posted by Eric Steuer, the Creative Director of Creative Commons–a project which, though I admittedly don’t fully understand it, I find deeply ethical and innovative with respect to offering new approaches to sharing and community.

So far, two posts have gone up, the first with Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook and the former online strategist for the Obama presidential campaign, and the second with Flickr founder Caterina Fake. Talking about how much we’ve changed in our attitudes toward sharing, Fake explains that

[i]f you go online today you will see stories about Obama sharing his private Flickr photos. So this is how far the world has come: our president is sharing photos of his life and experiences with the rest of the world, online. Our acceptance of public sharing has evolved a lot over the course of the past 15 years. And as people became increasingly comfortable sharing with each other—and the world—that lead to things that we didn’t even anticipate: the smart mob phenomenon, people cracking crimes, participatory media, subverting oppressive governments. We didn’t know these things were going to happen when we created the website, but that one decision—to make things public and sharable—had significant consequences.

Hughes’ interview is less overtly about sharing as we typically think of the term, but he points out that the Obama campaign was successful because it focused on offering useful communications tools that lowered barriers to access and then

getting out of the way of the grassroots supporters and organizers who were already out there making technology the most efficient vehicle possible for them to be able to organize. That was a huge emphasis of our program: with people all over the place online—Facebook, MySpace, and a lot of other different networks—we worked hard to make sure anyone who was energized by the campaign and inspired by Barack Obama could share that enthusiasm with their friends, get involved, and do tangible things to help us get closer to victory. The Obama campaign was in many ways a good end to the grassroots energy that was out there.

Both interviews, for as far as they go, offer interesting insights into how sharing is approached by innovators within their respective spheres. But though these posts present their subjects as bold in their embrace of sharing and community, their ideas about what sharing means and how it matters are woefully…limited. Fake uses the Obama example to point out how far we’ve come; but really, does Obama’s decision to make public photos of his adorable family mean much more than that he knows how to maintain his image as the handsome, open President who loves his family almost to a fault? I don’t imagine we’d be very surprised to learn that Obama’s advisors counseled him to make these photos widely available.

Indeed, the Flickr approach, in general, is this: These photos are mine and I will let you see them, but you have to give them back when you’re done. It’s a version of sharing, yes, but only along the lines of the sharing we learned to do as children.

The same is true of the picture Hughes paints of a campaign that successfully leveraged social networking technologies. The Obama campaign’s decision to use participatory technologies was a calculated move: Everybody knows that a.) More young, wired and tech-savvy people supported Obama than McCain; and b.) those supporters required a little extra outreach in order to line up at the polls on election day. You can bet that if Republicans outnumbered Democrats on Facebook, you can bet Obama’s managers would have been a little less quick to embrace these barrier-dropping communication tools.

What we’re not seeing so far among these innovators is an innovative approach to sharing–one that opens up copyright-able and patent-able and, therefore, economically valuable ideas and content to the larger community.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because of my obsession with open education and open access. In particular, educational researchers–even those who embrace open educational resources–struggle with the prospect of making their work available to other interested researchers.

This makes sense to anyone who’s undertaken ed research–prestige, funding, and plum faculty positions (what little there is of any of these things) are secured through the generation of innovative, unique scholarship and ideas, and ideas made readily available are ideas made readily stealable. As a fairly new addition to the field, even I have been a victim of intellectual property theft. It’s enough to give a person pause, even if, like me, you’re on open education like Joss Whedon on strong, feminist-type leading ladies.

But, come on, we all know there’s no point to hiding good research from the public. As Kevin Smith writes in a recent blogpost on a San Jose State University professor who accused a student of copyright violation for posting assigned work online,

[t]here are many reasons to share scholarship, and very few reasons to keep it secret. Scholarship that is not shared has very little value, and the default position for scholars at all levels ought to be as much openness as is possible. There are a few situations in which it is appropriate to withhold scholarship from public view, but they should be carefully defined and circumscribed. After all, the point of our institutions is to increase public knowledge and to put learning at the service of society. And there are several ways in which scholars benefit personally by sharing their work widely.

Smith is right, of course, and the only real issue is figuring out strategies for getting everybody on board with the pro-sharing approach to scholarship. The “I made this and you can see it but you have to give it back when you’re done” model is nice in theory but, in practice, limits innovation and progress in educational research. A more useful approach might be along the lines of: “I made this and you can feel free to appropriate the parts that are valuable to you, but please make sure you credit my work as your source material.” This is a key principle at the core of the open education approach and of what media scholar Henry Jenkins calls “spreadability.”

The problem is that there are enough academics who subscribe to the “share your toys but take them back when you’re done playing” approach to research that anybody who embraces the free-appropriation model of scholarship ends up getting every toy stolen and has to go home with an empty bag. This is why the open education movement holds so much promise for all of academia: Adherents to the core values of open education agree that while we may not have a common vocabulary for the practice of sharing scholarship, we absolutely need to work to develop one. For all my criticisms of the OpenCourseWare projects at MIT and elsewhere, one essential aspect of this work is that it opens up a space to talk about how to share materials, and why, and when, and in what context. The content of these projects may be conservative, but the approach is wildly radical.

Posted in academia, academics, collective intelligence, Henry Jenkins, intellectual property, MIT, open education, open source, President Obama, spreadability | 2 Comments »

Come to Sakai Conference 2009 in Beantown

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 2, 2009

I’ll be attending the Sakai Conference in Boston July 8-10. In case you’re unfamiliar with Sakai, here’s a quick rundown, followed by reasons why you should attend:

Sakai is an open source learning environment developed by and for educators. As the Sakai Project website explains,

The Sakai Collaboration and Learning Environment (CLE) is a flexible, enterprise application that supports teaching, learning and scholarly collaboration in either fully or partially online environments environments…. Instructors teach in a variety of different styles using a wide array of methods. Sakai meets the needs of the institution, the individual instructor and students though its highly customizable nature. Sakai’s architecture is modular and individual instructors can select the tools they want available for their class. Or you can configure sites that are specifically designed for research collaboration or administrative work groups. And because the source code is freely available, you always have the option of changing or adding a feature that would make Sakai work event better on your campus.

The conference is intended to highlight work with Sakai by designers, administrators, faculty, and students. A key theme in most of the scheduled sessions is collaboration, not only across a single university but across educational institutions. Sessions are organized in the following tracks:

  • Building Sakai: the technical aspects of Sakai enterprise development–requirements analysis, design, code, quality assurance, documentation and release management–hold center stage in this track. User experience design, scalability and performance, interoperability, development and presentation frameworks, programming best practices, and testing strategies are but a few of the many topics to be discussed and debated.
  • Deploying Sakai: planning a Sakai pilot or production rollout, have questions regarding configuration or administration or need advice on how best to train and support your user community, then the deployment track will interest you. Implementing and supporting Sakai at both large and small institutions will be examined with a goal of elucidating best practices for IT managers, system administrators, support staff and trainers.
  • Using Sakai: explore the teaching and learning, research and project collaboration capabilities of the Sakai Collaboration and Learning Environment. Sessions will examine effective learning and teaching practices, articulate strategies for facilitating research and project team collaboration, as well as confront the challenges of improving Sakai workflows, usability and accessibility.
  • Multiple Audiences: this track features sessions of general interest to the Sakai Community or presentations that span the problem domains otherwise demarcated by our other session tracks.
  • Sakai Showcase: the Sakai Community’s goal of producing innovative software for higher education is on display in this track. Interactive demonstrations and tutorials focusing on new or refactored Sakai tools and services provide a snapshot of community-source software development in action.

And here’s why you should attend:

  • First, I’d love to meet you.
  • Second, Sakai collaborators are on the front lines of the open source and open education movement, and they’re thinking about participatory design and opening up education in exciting, innovative ways.
  • Third, the keynote speaker is Vijay Kumar, the director of MIT’s Office of Educational Innovation and Technology and, more importantly, a key figure in the open education movement. He’ll be speaking at 8:30 a.m. on July 8, and you can bet I’ll be as close to the front row as I can get for it.
  • Fourth, Boston is a great place to be in early July. You can come early and get a glimpse of our world-famous Independence Day celebrations, or you can stay late and enjoy the post-July 4th quiet.

You should come to the conference if any of these keywords interest you: open education, open source, open access, online learning networks, supporting higher education and learning, social revolution.

Posted in awesome, education, MIT, open education, open source, social media, teaching | Leave a Comment »

Let’s rethink OpenCourseWare

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 29, 2009

You can’t knock down the gates around higher education by putting up virtual borders instead.

If you read this blog with any regularity, you know that I’m on the open source movement like Daniel Tosh on videos of people puking.

Which is why I engage with MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiative as if I were trying to embody the very definition of insanity itself. This time, I’ve gotten my dander up over the promise and disappointment of an awesomely titled course, Research Topics in Architecture: Citizen-Centered Design of Open Governance Systems. Here’s the description from the course’s syllabus:

Imagine if networked computers and other devices could unleash full democratic real-time participation in official decisions by all stakeholders. To date, member-led debate and decision-making has always been subject to physical limits in space, time and numbers of participants. Current technologies and business practices can allow architects and planners to break through the traditional constraints to member involvement in the agoras of our public and private institutions. The implications for corporate transparency and accountability, as well as for more responsive government are provocative.

In this seminar, students will design and perfect a digital environment to house the activities of large-scale organizations of people making bottom-up decisions, such as with citizen-government affairs, voting corporate shareholders or voting members of global non-profits and labor unions. A working Open Source prototype created last semester will be used as the starting point, featuring collaborative filtering and electronic agent technology pioneered at the Media Lab. This course focuses on development of online spaces as part of an interdependent human environment, including physical architectures, mapped work processes and social/political dimensions.

Perfect, right? And not only that, but I keep going back to the noble origins of OCW and wanting the tool to live up to its promise. As the site proclaims,

In 1999, MIT Faculty considered how to use the Internet in pursuit of MIT’s mission—to advance knowledge and educate students—and in 2000 proposed OCW. MIT published the first proof-of-concept site in 2002, containing 50 courses. By November 2007, MIT completed the initial publication of virtually the entire curriculum, over 1,800 courses in 33 academic disciplines. Going forward, the OCW team is updating existing courses and adding new content and services to the site.

It’s an expensive–according to the site, it costs between $10,000 and $15,000 to upload materials from a single course–but laudable effort, ideally suited to highly resourceful learners looking for ways to supplement their formal or informal learning.

Again and again I return to OCW. Again and again I’m disappointed by how hostile OCW materials are to even the most dedicated, passionate learner. The materials are easy to download and unzip but difficult to unpack: They’re so dense, and so decontextualized in their current format, that they’re nearly nonsensical.

The architecture course is a case in point. While I’d be hard-pressed to find a more perfect class for the likes of me, the materials, though organized according to the course schedule and packaged with lecture notes, handouts, and supplemental readings, are simply too much to make head or tail of. Here, for example, are the class notes from week 1, “slashdot as example”:

Class Notes

  1. – Karma – six levels – terrible, bad, neutral, positive, good, excellent
  2. Self-Organizing
  3. Fiction (Jeremy) – similar point system
  4. Pathfinder (Stylianos)
  5. Shock Experiment – Anonymity
  6. Slackdot – takes time to penetrate – no ‘design’ (‘blurb’ upon ‘blurb’)
  7. Legibility should be more important
  8. Hard to read – squint eyes
  9. Only get ‘tip of the iceberg’
  10. Graphic way of searching for info – (starry night)
  11. The Brain EKP – Enterprise Knowledge Platform
  12. Spider Map – Irish PM interface – drag and drop
  13. How things get ‘about the iceberg’ – organized on screen – very different
  14. Slashdot – every user is not equal – ‘superusers’ have more input – antidemocratic
  15. Mediation – 3rd party neutral – resolution among themselves.
  16. Arbitration – 3rd party neutral – arbitrator rules based on evidence.
  17. EBay- used same technology to resolve dispute
  18. High reputation, good feedback – typically did nothing wrong – past performance
  19. Filters – like minded people (ie ACLU) or only hi-karma people
  20. Maybe have user-defined (voted for things you also want)
  21. To what extent are user comments and actions transparent?
  22. Is real identity necessary?

Next Week:

How to preserve minority rights – mediation – therapeutic circles!

Debate Notes:
What do you mean by project based experience?
Really there is 2 proposals – eliminate GRE, use project-based evaluation
Other criteria still valid.

I’m sure this makes perfect sense to the student who was able to sit in on that week’s lecture, but it’s all but useless without that guidance. Though I’m sure the readings and other assignments clarify nicely, it’s up to me to locate the texts, read them alone, and figure out the link to the key ideas of the course. This is only slightly better, and perhaps a good deal more time-consuming, than if I were to simply email the instructor with a request for reading recommendations.

The resources aren’t completely useless, of course; the reading list saves me the time and energy of having to locate, contact, and wait to hear back from the instructor. I imagine, too, that OCW is an invaluable resource for higher ed faculty and administrators as they approach course planning. Used right, this kind of resource could help us make enormous strides toward leveling the higher education playing field.

But I’m not sure what using it right might look like. Should all universities compare their course offerings and reading materials to that offered by MIT faculty? Should all students pick an accompanying OCW course to complement their chosen field of study? Or should we ignore the content and emulate the approach: Making all course materials at all universities available to anybody who wants to access them?

Perhaps, as a colleague pointed out, it’s not fair to use a course from 2002 as proof of OCW’s failings. After all, as she explained, 2002 was too early to judge anything by today’s criteria: “In 2002,” she said, “the New York Times was still charging for content.”

Fair enough. But more recent courses appear similarly information-dense and context-sparse. All I’m saying (and I’ve said it before, here on this blog) is that while the impetus behind OCW is grand and noble, it doesn’t seem like anybody’s getting their $10,000 to $15,000 worth. It seems much more valuable–not to mention cheaper and more readily accessible–to capture one or two key lectures per semester, surround those lectures with related readings designed by the lecturer for the OCW context, and link learners to a cluster of resources available through other open educational resources, online networks, and offline texts. This seems much more closely aligned to the spirit of the open educational movement, an effort that hopes to break down archaic and arbitrary geological, achievement-oriented, and class-defined gaps in participation.

Okay, now I’m just repeating myself.

Posted in academia, academics, distributed cognition, education, intellectual property, MIT, open education, open source | 7 Comments »

open source, open access, open education: some definitions

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 18, 2009

For my upcoming study at Indiana University, I’m working on a position paper on the Free / Open Source / Libre movement, the open source ethos, and open education. It’s kind of weird having to draft a position paper when I kind of feel like I’ve done that, over here at sleeping alone and starting out early.

In fact, a position paper focusing only on the F/OSS movement and open education seems to somehow miss the point, since the spirit of these movements embraces an open-source approach to culture at large. In this way, this blog feels more appropriate as a position statement than any short paper ever could.

Still, academia is academia, and I can’t just turn in a one-liner ( as a position paper. The paper I’m drafting, though, belongs to and informs this blog as much as this blog informs it. For that reason, I’ll be posting my work here as I go.

Today, I’ll start with some definitions.

Open Source:
Open source is an approach to the design, development, and distribution of software, offering practical accessibility to a software’s source code. Some consider open source as one of various possible design approaches, while others consider it a critical strategic element of their operations. Before open source became widely adopted, developers and producers used a variety of phrases to describe the concept; the term open source gained popularity with the rise of the Internet, which provided access to diverse production models, communication paths, and interactive communities. (

Open Source Software (OSS): computer software for which the source code and certain other rights normally reserved for copyright holders are provided under a software license that meets the Open Source Definition or that is in the public domain. This permits users to use, change, and improve the software, and to redistribute it in modified or unmodified forms. It is very often developed in a public, collaborative manner. Open source software is the most prominent example of open source development and often compared to user-generated content. The term open source software originated as part of a marketing campaign for free software.

Free Software (vs. Open Source Software): The term “free software” was coined by Richard Stallman, who explains that

When we call software “free,” we mean that it respects the users’ essential freedoms: the freedom to run it, to study and change it, and to redistribute copies with or without changes. This is a matter of freedom, not price, so think of “free speech,” not “free beer.” (

Briefly, the difference in the terms highlights different ethical approaches to software development. In general, the OSS movement emphasizes the collective engagement with source code in order to develop, and sometimes to market, powerful and efficient software. The free software movement identifies as a social movement. Stallman explains:

Nearly all open source software is free software; the two terms describe almost the same category of software. But they stand for views based on fundamentally different values. Open source is a development methodology; free software is a social movement. For the free software movement, free software is an ethical imperative, because only free software respects the users’ freedom. By contrast, the philosophy of open source considers issues in terms of how to make software “better”—in a practical sense only. It says that non-free software is a suboptimal solution. For the free software movement, however, non-free software is a social problem, and moving to free software is the solution.

Many adherents to these movements, to avoid this issue, simply refer to the Free/Open Source Software (F/OSS) Movement.

Community Source Software (CSS): Community Source Software differs from OSS in that institutions devote paid employees to the project, with the intention of collaboratively developing a product that embraces the open source ethos. From the Wikipedia article on Community source,

An important distinctive characteristic of community source as opposed to plain open source is that the community includes some organizations or institutions that are committing their resources to the community, in the form of human resources or other financial elements. In this way, the open source project will have both more solid support, rather than purely volunteer efforts as found in other open source communities, and will possibly be shaped by the strategic requirements of the institution committing the resource.

Examples of CSS include: the Sakai Project, Kuali Foundation, and Open Source Portfolio.

Open Access (OA):
From, “open access (OA) literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions. The goal of adopting OA policies is to remove barriers to information. Many higher education institutions have adopted an open access policy, as for example the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which explains that it adopted an OA policy because “The Faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is committed to disseminating the fruits of its research and scholarship as widely as possible.”

Open Education Movement and Open Educational Resources (OERs): From Opening Up Education, a key tenet of this movement is that education can be improved by making educational assets visible and accessible and by harnessing the collective wisdom of a community of practice and reflection. The open education movement embraces a shift away from a scarcity-based model of higher education, which bases its value on limiting access. As Batson, Paharia, and Kumar explain (in chapter 6, “A Harvest Too Large? A Framework for Educational Abundance”), open education works within a “knowledge ecology characterized by unfettered access to educational resources, choice, and change in the context and clientele of higher education.” In the open, “abundance-based” learning framework, we see the following shifts, with the “trend indicators” column showing features of higher education that point to the shift.

Recursive Publics: This term was coined by Christopher Kelty, who describes it at length in Two Bits (available for download, online browsing, and modulation for free online):

A recursive public is a public that is vitally concerned with the material and practical maintenance and modification of the technical, legal, practical, and conceptual means of its own existence as a public; it is a collective independent of other forms of constituted power and is capable of speaking to existing forms of power through the production of actually existing alternatives.

More to the point, a recursive public is a group of people who exist outside of traditional institutions (governments, churches, schools, corporations) and, when necessary, use this outsider status to hold these entities in check. The engagement of these publics goes far beyond simply protesting decisions or stating their opinions. Kelty, writing about geek culture as a recursive public, explains it thus:

Recursive publics seek to create what might be understood, enigmatically, as a constantly “self-leveling” level playing field. And it is in the attempt to make the playing field self-leveling that they confront and resist forms of power and control that seek to level it to the advantage of one or another large constituency: state, government, corporation, profession. It is important to understand that geeks do not simply want to level the playing field to their advantage—they have no affinity or identity as such. Instead, they wish to devise ways to give the playing field a certain kind of agency, effected through the agency of many different humans, but checked by its technical and legal structure and openness. Geeks do not wish to compete qua capitalists or entrepreneurs unless they can assure themselves that (qua public actors) that they can compete fairly. It is an ethic of justice shot through with an aesthetic of technical elegance and legal cleverness.

Posted in academia, Dan Hickey, graduate school, intellectual property, MIT, open education, open source, social revolution | Leave a Comment »

and then some stuff happened: a technobiography

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 7, 2009

Hark ye yet again–the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks.
–Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

When I started high school in 1991, so few people had email accounts that it’s likely I’d never even heard the term. When I graduated in 1995, I remember being amazed when a friend showed me what his AOL email account could do (what resonated most for me was that if the intended recipient had not yet opened an email, the sender could actually rescind it–unsend the email.) When I started college that fall, I got my own email account and checked it every few days at the single computer in the common room on my floor of the dorm.

Between 1991 and 1995, a massacre of 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda, and the American government’s decision not to step in, revealed the sinister side of international diplomacy. Clarence Thomas was confirmed as the first African American U.S. Supreme Court Justice, despite (or because of) obscenely conservative views on race and culture and charges of sexual harassment by an employee, Anita Hill. The Anita Hill story broke on NPR first and quickly spread to television and newspapers, though the impetus wasn’t enough to prevent Thomas’s confirmation. Rodney King was beaten in L.A. Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. America’s households were 98% populated with televisions.

I bought my first new computer–an enormous and slow HP Pavilion–in 2000 and connected it to the Internet via dial-up service. When 9/11 happened, I was on my Internet-wired computer at work and was unable to access CNN, the BBC, or any online news site because the Internet traffic crashed servers and overloaded the sites. I had to walk to a local cafe and watch the story unfolding on TV.

In 2001, I did not own–and had no reason to think I would ever own–a laptop computer, a cellphone, a high-definition television, or an mp3 player. Indeed, when I started graduate school in 2002 I was still of the mindset that I would refuse to own a cellphone, at least, for the rest of my life.

“Phones are for my convenience, not other people’s,” I argued, ludditely. “These young people are stuck to their cellphones and I don’t want that to be me.”

In 2003 I went to a counter-protest to commemorate the five year anniversary of the beating death of Matthew Shepard. Fred Phelps and his horde were bringing their signs and sliminess to a University of Wyoming-Colorado State football game, and counterprotesters numbered in the hundreds.

In the first half of 2004 Massachusetts legalized gay marriage. In the second half, George W. Bush beat John Kerry at the polls.

Meanwhile, there were some wars on. We didn’t get as much information as we wanted, but we got enough to know something obscene was happening. A lot of what we learned, despite the Bush administration’s attempt to control information flow, was made available–and then replicable and spreadable and searchable–via the Internet.

In 2005 I got my first laptop, a Dell with wireless capability. I played a lot of Bejeweled on it, and I also used it, when the adjunct instructor thing got too exhausting, to look for a new job. I used it to apply for more than 50 high school teaching positions (nobody wanted me) and half a dozen jobs in higher education.

In 2007 I started working at MIT and very quickly, and in this order, secured the following:

  • a MacBook Pro
  • a Facebook account
  • a cellphone
  • cable TV
  • a twitter account
  • a blog

Somewhere along the way, I came to embrace the participatory practices and cultures enabled by new media technologies and social tools. For me, the news of the last four years is the news of my embrace of the new mindsets and skillsets afforded by new technologies and increasingly valued by our culture at large. (It’s possible, in fact, that culture and I were always ready to embrace these new valued practices, but we were waiting for the technologies to emerge that would enable them.)

In 2008 Barack Obama was elected to the U.S. Presidency. Between 2005 and 2009 a cluster of states legalized gay marriage or some variation thereof, and a cluster of states banned or overturned these laws. The debates over abortion, evolution, and what to teach our kids, and how, continue just as before, at least in content. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, though access to information about the details of these conflicts has increased. Twitter is big now, in the sense that while not everyone is using it, lots of people care about what’s going on within and as a result of it. Email, not so much–in the sense that while everyone is using it, nobody cares too much about it anymore. Journalism as we’ve traditionally thought of it is in significant crisis; the handwringing over the future of newspapers happens even on Twitter. President Obama has nominated a Latina judge, Sonia Sotomayor, to the U.S. Supreme Court, and she appears to stand on the liberal side of most things.

The story of cultural history is something like this:

“…and then some stuff happened, and we used what we had at our disposal to try to make sense of it.”

The same stuff is happening–at least in the sense that the same topics are still being discussed–but the tools we have to make sense of it are so new, so different from what we’ve ever had, that the only real purpose of comparing the historical iterations of the “stuff” is to highlight how different the social architecture of this world is from that of any version that came before it.

Somewhere in there, in what is perhaps the most telling detail of both my story and our culture’s, I decided to stop capitalizing the word “internet.”

Posted in culture, gay rights, human rights, journalism, MIT, Moby-Dick, new media, participatory culture, President Obama, social justice, television, Twitter | 1 Comment »

headline: Hillary Kolos brings the awesome. Awesomeness ensues.

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on May 31, 2009

One of my favorite young media scholars is Hillary Kolos, a graduate student in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies Program. Because I have had the great, great luck to get to work with her over the last year as part of my day job, I’ve had the joy of watching her blossom as a thinker, writer, and media scholar.

Recently, Hillary had a personal essay posted to Henry Jenkins’s blog. The piece, “Bouncing Off the Walls: Playing with Teen Identity”, focuses on her experience with gender and identity play through a consideration of how she decorated the walls of her bedroom as an adolescent. The piece is a gem. One tantalizing snippet:

As a teen, I used many resources to play with new identities. Fashion ads served as inspiration. My walls were a place to exhibit them. I did also, on occasion, leave my room where I had other experiences that helped shape the woman I am today. But having a space of my own to play and then reflect was very important to my process of identity formation. What seemed like goofing off at the time was actually a process of exploring who I thought I was at the time, as well as who I thought I should be.

My experience in my room is one of countless examples of how teens use their available resources to explore potential identities through play. This kind of play can happen in private, but often young people use media to capture their experiments and share them with others. In this way, they can gauge reactions and refine their performances. I used my walls to reach a limited audience, but today teens can easily reach millions of people online and receive feedback instantly on how they represent themselves. It will be interesting to see the new possibilities, as well as the new concerns, that emerge as teens use new resources to play with their identities online.

You can find the rest on Henry’s blog here. As I mention in the title of this post, the piece is filled with awesome and well worth the read.

Posted in academics, awesome, creativity, feminism, graduate school, Henry Jenkins, joy, MIT, new media, Project New Media Literacies | Leave a Comment »