What’s the Difference Between OCWs and MOOCs? Managing Expectations.

What’s the difference between OCWs and MOOCs? At the end of the day, it may be nothing more than managing expectations.

Let’s take Physics for example.

Here’s the MIT OCW Physics course from 1999. It includes videos, lecture notes and other readings, assignments and exams with solutions, and a recommendation that you buy a commercial textbook. There is a study group that learners can join. There does not appear to be any way to interact with the instructor. The course uses a very traditional pedagogy and is openly licensed.

Here’s the Coursera / Georgia Tech Physics course from 2013. It includes videos, assignments and exams, and includes a recommendation that you buy a commercial textbook. There appears to be a study group that learners can join. There does not appear to be any way to interact with the instructor. The course uses an inquiry-based pedagogy and does not appear to be openly licensed.

This OCW collection and this MOOC have a LOT in common. While they differ in pedagogy and licensing, from the public perspective maybe the most important difference between these two big collections of freely accessible online resources – and the two genres of OCW and MOOC more generally – is market positioning and expectation management:

MIT OCW has always positioned itself as primarily teacher-facing. The collections of materials are intended to support faculty at other institutions in teaching similar classes or engaging in professional development. When independent learners manage to benefit from MIT OCW, this is a happy coincidence – a secondary benefit of the primary mission of supporting faculty around the world. Since MIT OCW is teacher-facing, of course there is no faculty member there to support students. Only the very bright and extremely self-motivated can benefit, but that’s ok since serving students isn’t their actual mission.

The commercial MOOC providers have positioned themselves as primarily student-facing. Their collections of materials are intended to support student learning, and their Terms of Service explicitly prohibit faculty around the world from using their materials in the courses they teach (there will be no secondary benefits). Since they are student-facing, the lack of a faculty member there to support students is keenly felt. The idea that only the very bright and extremely self-motivated can benefit from these MOOCs, which is what appears to be happening, is problematic since serving learners is their stated mission.

We’re seeing a huge anti-MOOC backlash now, but never saw an anti-OCW backlash. Why? Perhaps because even though to the public mind they’re doing essentially the same things – publishing large collections of curated, high quality, freely available course content – OCW managed the public’s expectations better.