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Massive Online Courses Create Bragging Rights for Universities, and Other Insights From Hewlett's OER Meeting

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I spent the afternoon at the Hewlett Open Educational Resources Grantee Meeting, and the heart of the agenda was brainstorming obstacles to the widespread adoption of Open Educational Resources (OER) and giving the Hewlett program officers a chance to talk about trends and changes in the landscape related to OER. 

Here are three of my big insights from the first afternoon:

First, Vic Vuchic, Hewlett's program officer, explained the significance of Massive Open Online Courses, like those being offered by Stanford and MITx. There are some fascinating features to these courses: the tens of thousands of enrollees, the automated grading, the rush of venture capital into the space. But here's the big deal: elite universities have spent recent years bragging about how many students they turn away and how selective they are. Here is a moment where universities start bragging about how many learners they serve and how many people they reach. That has the potential to profoundly shift how elite institutions of higher education see their mission in the decades ahead. It's not just about technology; it's about shifting culture. 

Second, I react with a mix of fascination, horror and ambivalence at Hewlett's competition for an Automated Student Assessment Prize: an X-prize where programmers compete to create an algorithm that can best predict the human ratings for a set of student produced essays. Part of me screams: "Anything that a computer can grade isn't worth writing!" Then part of me says "Settle down. Look. You want students to write more in school? Then in the current policy context we need more writing on high-stakes tests, and automated graders can make that more affordable. Plus, if these are just one tool in the toolbox carried by teachers and students, then we can have rapid assessment of some student products and detailed assessment and coaching for other student products." Automated grading of student writing is going to arrive on teachers' desks in the next few years, and I hope it leads to some real soul-searching about what it means to teach and learn writing. 

I bet that many educators who hate that particular project will love another assessment tool that Hewlett is funding: Show Evidence. This app lets you take any piece of media, and tag parts of the media with benchmarks from a rubric. So you can go to paragraph 11, or the top left corner of a poster, or minute 2:11 of a video, and tag the media as showing evidence of a particular level of skill mastery. This could be a very powerful tool for performance-based assessments, and I'm excited to see it get on the App Store. 

I end with my favorite comment of the day from SJ Klein, one of the leaders of the One Laptop Per Child project. I might not get this quotation quite right, but SJ asked "'What if instead of assuming that learning materials were to be bought and sold, we imagined them as the public infrastructure of culture?" That's the most beautiful phrasing I have heard for the mission of the OER community.  

Let me know what questions or responses you have, and for more tweets from the meeting follow me at @bjfr or the #oerhf12 tag.

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