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November 14, 2005

MIT Open Courseware: Introduction To Biology


Ever since the MIT Open CourseWare project launched eighteen months ago, the e-learning community has been debating about whether or not MIT's ambitious program is living up to its goal of providing 'free, searchable, access to MIT's course materials for educators, students, and self-learners around the world.' As Ben Vershbow noted in the if:book blog in August, many of the OpenCourseWare listings are essentially just syllabi with a few assignments, i.e., neither particularly radical nor particularly effective as online classes.

There are, however, several standouts on the site, and I'd like to discuss one of them: a Spring 2005 Section of Introduction to Biology. This is not the only MIT Open CourseWare selection to offer video lectures; currently, about 20 courses include video. Nor does it necessarily represent the future direction of the Open Courseware project - for reasons I'll detail below, MIT is ambivalent about relying heavily on video lectures. But it is a good example of a course that is close to fulfilling MIT's mandate of providing the MIT experience to anyone who logs on to the site.

One of the reasons why the Open Courseware biology offerings are particularly strong is that MIT has a special working group - an offshoot of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute - devoted especially to improving undergraduate biology education. This means that this class has been put together with a lot of thought about how best to teach biology to a students coming from a range of backgrounds and with a variety of different interest levels. It also means that a good deal of supplementary material is available on the course site, including the MIT Biology Hypertextbook, an introduction to the molecular biology that's included in the course in a hyperbook format. Thus, unlike many of the other courses on the MIT site, it is almost possible to use the Introductory Biology courseware as a complete digital text for beginning biology. The site does recommend that students purchase an introductory biology textbook (they recommend Scott Freeman's Biological Science), if only to serve as a 'detailed reference source' on the concepts that are highlighted in the lecture and section materials of the course.'

HHMI's emphasis on translating biology for undergrads is also evident in the video lectures. The course is co-taught by Professor Graham Walker, director of the HHMI Education group, and environmental sciences Professor Sallie W. Chisholm. Both professors are engaging, lucid and fun to watch. Walker in particular spends a lot of time explaining the practical implications of what he's talking about, drawing on media stories and medical accounts to pique student's interest.

So why am I making the argument that this site is a "digital textbook?" Because I found the lectures in themselves could be used as a biology text -- complete with illustrations and diagrams (here, sketched out on the board). Of course, they aren't optimally functional -- ideally, they could be embedded in a program such as TK3, with the class handouts and "hypertextbook" made available in a more active architecture that responded to the time-based nature of the lectures. Or the lectures themselves could be made searchable, so that a student could track all references to evolution, for example, over the course of the semester.

There's an interesting paradox here. These lectures work wonderfully as a text precisely because they are not in themselves interactive pedagogy. Walker and Chisolm monologue in front of a large (unseen) audience and don't entertain any questions: questions get asked during discussion sessions. They are also utterly conventional in terms of their own use of instructional technology: mainly, they rely on the blackboard, with occasional recourse to digital slides.

The digital slides are a problem for the MIT folks. Every time Walker projects something like a Newsweek photo or a cartoon from the New Yorker, the screen goes black except for the phrase 'removed due to copyright concerns.' This is more than a little frustrating. Since both professors use the board frequently, it is not possible to simply listen to the lectures; at the same time, staring at a black-out screen has the effect of making one's attention drift from what is being said.

It seems to me that this anxiety about copyright is a primary factor in preventing MIT from putting more video classes online. MIT explains things a bit differently: video lectures, they say, require too much bandwith to be universally accessible, and they require too much storage space on the MIT server. I'm a bit skeptical of these claims. One can make the video lectures available to those with faster connections without depriving the less-endowed access to syllabi and assignments, and I'm not buying the claim that MIT is running out of storage space (quick! hook up another firewire to the mainframe!). Instead, I see the Introduction To Biology class as a tantalizing hint of what might be possible if there were less anxiety about extending fair use in the classroom to the larger world of online learning.

Posted by lisa lynch at November 14, 2005 12:23 PM