Open Education at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the United States

Shigeru Miyagawa

Shigeru Miyagawa

Interview with Shigeru Miyagawa, Chair of the MIT OpenCourseWare Faculty Advisory Committee, Professor of Japanese Language and Culture and the Head of Foreign Language and Literature at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the United States

Interview conducted by: Nadia Mireles, General Dean, Office of Internalization, University of Guadalajara, Mexico

Can you give a brief overview of the scope of open initiatives at your institution?

MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) started in 2000 when a MIT faculty committee proposed to then President Charles Vest that MIT should do OCW. That was in the year 2000 and we started to build OCW in 2002 with funding from the Mellon Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation. We presently have materials from roughly 2000-2100 courses as OCW. This represents approximately 70% of all of the courses taught at MIT.

Why did MIT get involved? What motivated you to start with this project?

Back in 2000 our intention was to start MIT.com and sell teaching materials to the world. There were many people who were doing that or something similar to that. This was still the “.com” era. So our faculty committee was basically charged with coming up with some kind of business model for MIT.com. However, as we kept looking into the possibility we came to realize that, for a couple of reasons, this was not a good idea. One of the reasons was that we did some investigation on other e-learning efforts around the country. In fact we actually interviewed one company in Europe as well. We realized that this was a very difficult business to make money off. So, that was one of the reasons. At the same time we also realized that if we started selling materials that professors make that we would actually tie teaching materials to money directly. We felt that that was not a good idea. We felt that teaching materials produced by MIT professors, who are very educationally minded, committed to education, should be made available to as many people as possible. This is why we came up with the idea of OCW.

What motivates you to continue?

There are a couple of reasons. One is that we have over 1million of people using OCW every month. We had absolutely no idea when we started OCW that we would have such a huge user base. It continues to increase, which is remarkable. The second thing is that OCW’s mission is really MIT’s mission as well. MIT’s mission is to create new knowledge, preserve it and share it with the rest of the world. OCW is very much that. That’s motivation based on MIT’s mission.

How would you describe the level of commitment from faculty, students, and administration?

When we first started OCW we needed, of course, faculty members to be very much part of it because it is faculty’s teaching materials that we were going to put out as OCW. So we really promoted OCW and we got huge participation. Something like 70% of the faculty has contributed their materials. MIT is a very civic-minded institution. The fact that our teaching materials are helping people all over the world is something that is very important to MIT faculty.

Did you experience any resistance from Faculty to share their teaching materials?

Initially, there was some resistance. Questions such as “Why should we do this? We teach our students. Why do we need to offer our teaching materials to the whole world in a way in which they can freely access, download, copy or alter what we offer”? I would say that the first couple of years we really had many discussions with faculty, with students, with staff to explain what this is.  It took a lot of work on the part of a handful of faculty to convince the rest of the Institute that this is something worth doing. It is a completely different way of looking at your teaching materials.  

In what ways do you think Open Education (OE) has impacted Institutional practice, reputation and culture of MIT? 

OCW was definitely a huge paradigm shift. From looking at one’s teaching materials as solely for the use of our students inside the walls of our Institution to saying here is part of our education that we want to share with the rest of the world. Anyone is free to use it. This is a complete shift in how we view what we’ve produced as teaching material. This really started the OE movement. From people trying to sort of keep it inside or trying to charge for it in order to make money to saying that it is good, in fact it is part of our mission to share what we have produced with the rest of the world.

Have you noticed any impact on faculty’s teaching practices as a result of your engagement with OCW? 

We know that nearly 80% of our faculty look at our OCW. They look at their own OCW site but also at other people’s OCW sites (courses). When we think about that, it is a pretty important phenomenon. For most professors in the US, once you start teaching as a faculty member you really do not get to see anyone else teach. So your teaching becomes sort of frozen in time. Because of OCW, faculty members are able to see so many different teaching approaches through the teaching materials as OCW. That is just an extraordinary thing. We are going to really start to see the effect of that down the road and the impact that OCW has had in this context.

What do you think are the most positive outcome from MIT’s involvement in the OE movement?

First and foremost it is the idea of opening up education. We did that. We started that back in 2000 as an institution. As an Institution we made a commitment. That’s probably the single most important contribution that OCW has made to the world. Much of OCW content is licensed under Creative Commons, which makes it possible for anyone to take the material and do whatever they want to do with it. As long as you use it for educational non-profit purpose you can do whatever you want to with it. It is not like some copyrighted intellectual property. That is something really important and also something that we are very proud of and we hope to keep that. As you know there is great recent interest in MOOCs. We have edX organization to do that. MOOCs are not open right now. MOOCs are mostly offered, right now, in a limited time range. Once the course is over it is closed down and you don’t have access to it. The content is mostly under all rights reserved conditions. It is not OA in the same way that OCW is. MOOCs enjoy large enrollments upfront but they have huge attrition rate. Something like only 10% of people who sign up actually finish the course. What we find is that many of those who cannot finish our MOOCs, the circuits MOOC, for example, because they cannot keep up the pace with MOOCs, they would migrate to the same course available as OCW and take it at their own pace.

What were some of the most significant challenges your institution had to overcome regarding your involvement with open education? What challenges do you envision in the future?

One is financial. How do you sustain financially OCW? This is not trivial. MIT was fortunate for having had funding from Mellon and Hewlett to start with and now MIT is picking up quite a bit of the tab and it is part of MIT’s mission. But we really need to see how to sustain it financially. Same with MOOCs. How do you sustain that financially? Each MOOC course costs a huge amount of money to produce. Right now we are offering it for free. We can’t continue to do that if we hope to sustain that. We have to come up with some business model for sustaining it. Coursera, for example, is experimenting with different business models such as licensing its content to big state institutions like SUNY, Texas and so forth. Coming up with a business model will be a huge challenge. The other challenge is the idea of attrition. 50k people may sign up for a course but only a few thousand finish. That’s not very efficient. Because anyone can sign up and many who sign up do not realize the workload that it involves and the pace with which you have to work and so they drop out very quickly. From an educator’s point of view we would like to see a better rate of maintaining students. Finally, as we move to some kind of business model you have to authenticate your learners so that when you give a certificate the certificate carries weight. As opposed to today, when you get a certificate, it essentially just says: Someone by your name has completed the course but there is no authentication of a learner. So the certificate does not carry too much weight.

How do you see the future of open education at your institution in the next 3-5 years?

In the case of MIT we have a well-established project, OCW. MIT OCW is visited by over 1 million people every month. We have an organization on our campus dedicated to supporting OCW efforts. We also have MITx, which produces MOOCs. Now we are looking to see how we can combine the resources in an efficient, rational way so that we can continue to do both but in a rational way – financially and organizationally. That’s what we are discussing at the moment. Things will start to evolve. OCW 5 years from now will look different from OCW today. I chair the MIT OCW Advisory Committee and one of the things that the Advisory Committee is doing is discussing how OCW should evolve in tune with MITx and MOOCs.

If you had to describe open education at your institution in 5 words, what would they be?

Open Access; High quality; Faculty-produced; Free usage of the content.

What would you recommend for Institutions thinking of getting involved in OE movement?

One mistake that I see over the past ten years is that some institutions signed up for OCW without really thinking as to why they wanted to become involved. This is also true with MOOCs. The reason why OCW has been so successful at MIT and continues to evolve is, as I said, OCW reflects directly MIT’s own mission. It is not something separate from the Institution. Institutions that start OE with their own values and mission in mind will succeed. As an institution you need to ask, what is your mission and how will OE help you to achieve that mission?

It appears that MOOCs are getting a lot of attention and OE remains a little bit on the side. What would you comment about this?

It is like anything else. The newest, sexiest thing is getting all the attention. That’s OK. MOOCs have been around for only a year and a half. Can you believe it? Stanford started it in 2012. Whether MOOCs are going to have an impact that people are hoping for and whether they can be sustained financially is unclear at the moment. My suspicion is that many institutions currently experimenting with MOOCs are going to start looking inward to see how this new infrastructure could be used for their own education, how it can benefit their own education and transform the traditional classroom.