Scientists present Opening Learning Interplay

Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative (OLI) recently hosted a symposium called Opening Learning Interplay. The symposium aimed at creating a platform where learning scientists and open educational resource (OER) developers could interact and share innovative ideas.

OER developers create web-based learning materials that are available online for free use. Learning scientists, on the other hand, study how learning occurs and what environments are best suited for learning.

“The primary goal of the symposium was to bring together the learning science research community with the open educational resource development community to begin to explore how working collaboratively between the two communities might support them each better,” said Candace Thille, the OLI director.

Thille also said that the symposium instructed OER developers in helping learning scientists teach students outside the classroom. The symposium thus provided both communities with valuable information and was a learning experience for both.

OLI came up with the idea of the symposium as it has been employing such collaborative techniques for quite some time. According to a Carnegie Mellon press release, OLI has developed a number of online courses in subjects as diverse as chemistry and French ever since 2002.

OLI aims to create environments that are conducive to learning, to help users take away as much as they would in a classroom. With this goal in mind, materials were designed by the combined effort of learning scientists, OER developers, faculty experts in each subject, and software engineers.

“We found that the most effective way of developing those environments was through this team-based development approach,” Thille said. Since this strategy was so effective, OLI decided to share the strategy with other OER developers through the symposium.

The symposium, sponsored by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center, brought together learning scientists from different institutions including the University of California at Berkeley, Stanford University, and the University of London, in addition to OER developers from around the country.

The symposium suggested strategies for the improvement of open educational resources, but it did not undermine the fact that such resources have been drafting a change in the educational system already. Catherine Casserly, director of the open educational resources initiative at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation said, “I think [OER developers have] done a pretty great job of beginning to equalize access and to unlock knowledge that had previously been held private by universities and other institutions.”

A variety of OERs, such as papers and reviews on culture and customer-centered design, have already been laid out on the OER website. Such resources are not merely another reservoir of information, they actually teach the material to the students. “We’re not just putting up the material that supports the traditional course, we’re actually designing environments to teach students even if they are not in class,” Thille said.

The challenge now lies in making such resources more accessible and user-friendly. This is where the combination of learning scientists and OER developers comes into play.

“The idea [of the symposium] was to feed information from the learning sciences that Carnegie Mellon has been so exemplary at into the work that we’re doing in open education resources,” Casserly said, “both to level the [playing field] with respect to access to high quality contact and to deepen and improve teaching and learning.”

The greatest challenge faced by OER developers is to ensure that the material is used properly.

“The original goal of developing these courses was to give access to instruction to students who didn’t have the privilege of being in a classroom situation,” Thille said. Thille added that studies have shown that students using the OLI courses can learn material as well as students sitting in a traditional classroom.

Having said that, this interactive assimilation does not neutralize the benefits of in-class learning. The ideal use of this material lies in combining it with what students absorb in class.
“The best use of these materials is using them in a blended environment,” Thille said.

Students learn best when they already know the basics of a given subject, she explained, and it is even more beneficial for them to study these concepts outside of class. Class time could then be reserved for learning more advanced topics and the professors would not have to go through all the basics again. If students study the basics online, for example, professors can spend class time more effectively, covering advanced topics.

“They [online courses] are a supplement to the classroom learning experience,” Casserly said.

Web-based learning resources are useful tools that, when used in the correct manner, can help students enhance their academic performances through a wholesome learning experience.
The symposium brought forth this aspect of distance education to the Carnegie Mellon community.