From the Classroom to Your Computer: A Conversation with Curt Newton of MIT OCW recently attended the OpenCourseWare Consortium (OCWC), a gathering of educators and professionals interested in the availability and application of free online instructional material known as OpenCourseWare (OCW). There we met Curt Newton, a publication manager for MIT's massive OCW database. We talked with Curt about the processes behind MIT's OCW program, as well as his thoughts on its future.

By Eric Garneau

Curt Newton

Curt Newton earned electrical engineering degrees from Iowa State and Stanford Universities, which led him to spend 15 years as an optical network systems engineer for Bell Labs. After an industry crisis in the early 2000s, he migrated his career into a field he felt was more meaningful - education. He began as a freelance writer and textbook consultant and eventually ended up at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he now helps oversee their sizable database of OCW as a publication manager.

Q. How did you become involved with OCW?

A. I'd written a few pieces for MIT's Technology Review magazine and was poking around campus for the next story idea when MIT OpenCourseWare was publishing its first 50 courses. I was intrigued, like many were, by this revolutionary concept of openly sharing some of the best teaching in the world. My editor turned down this pitch since one of their staff writers was already on it. But I kept watch on OCW's emergence - and especially on their job openings - recognizing it was a mission I could unequivocally support.

In 2004 I landed an entry-level position as a 'department liaison,' working directly with the faculty of several departments to publish their courses in OCW. The ideal department liaison was envisioned as a freshly minted MIT undergraduate, putting their recent degree and campus connections to use for a year or so before heading to graduate school. Not fitting the candidate profile, it took some convincing that my interest in the position was for real! I'm grateful for the hiring manager's willingness to take that leap with me.

Q. What's the process like for faculty members who wish to submit to MIT's OCW?

A. Faculty members want their course sites to be a good reflection of their teaching and to not spend much time converting materials for our use, so our staff handles all the details, ensuring that publishing in OCW is efficient and worthwhile for these incredibly busy people. Our aim is to limit faculty involvement to just a few hours total.

For a typical course, faculty provide three things: access to teaching materials in whatever forms they may be, guidance on the occasional content question (sources of images, clarifying how different class components relate to one another) and review/approval of the draft site prior to publication.

Often the process starts shortly after the class term ends. In other cases - if we're recording video, arranging a student note-taker or capturing material from student projects - we may get involved before or during the term. The entire process takes anywhere from a month to a year depending on faculty availability and complexity of materials, especially intellectual property and media production.

Q. According to MIT's OCW website, submitting course materials is completely voluntary. Is this something the school encourages professors to do? Are there ever any materials you specifically seek out?

A. MIT OCW was originally proposed by a faculty committee and from its inception has had the full backing of MIT's administration. That said, individual participation is indeed voluntary. During the first few years, recruiting participants probably took as much effort as actually publishing course content. Fortunately, most MIT faculty have come to view OCW publication as quite worthwhile; they increasingly seek us out with new courses and updates to previously published materials. Nearly 80% of MIT's faculty have chosen to share their materials, along with many other teaching staff and students - some 4,600 MIT community members in all.

At any time, there are certainly target classes and types of content that we seek out. Keeping abreast of new subjects, new faculty and broader curriculum changes are among the reasons we may look for a particular course. And users continue to remind us we can't have too much video! Overall, we aim keep our representation of MIT's curriculum complete and up to date while improving the content richness and usability.

There are also situations we tend to stay away from - for instance, junior faculty in the last year or two of their tenure case. As important as OCW publication might be, it's usually not going to make the cut during that phase of a faculty member's career.

Q. You oversee a number of departments for MIT's OCW. Do you find that any departments are especially active when it comes to OCW? Conversely, are there any that don't have a major OCW presence?

A. We have solid participation from all departments. However, some subjects and approaches to teaching do lend themselves more readily to the OCW format. A class that's inherently built around lots of copyrighted materials or is predominantly lab/activity-based can be challenging. For instance, music and media studies classes that make extensive use of copyrighted clips have historically been underrepresented. With last year's unveiling of the Code of Best Practices in Fair Use in OpenCourseWare, things are looking up for these subjects.

While our staff frequently works with departments outside their particular degree backgrounds, a personal connection to the subject matter does help. My music background has definitely led to increased activity from MIT's music program.

Q. Do you have any particular OCW success stories?

A. Every day we hear from users around the globe about how OCW material has helped them. These inspiring messages are my favorite successes. It may be an adult learner grappling with life circumstances that prevented them from attending college, a struggling student who's found a missing link in their current studies or simply someone thrilled by the insights in a particular OCW course. Some highlights are on our site's OCW Stories page.

Q. What do you think the benefit of OCW is to education in general?

A. Individuals are taking increasing responsibility for their lifelong education. The entire OER (Open Educational Resources) movement is a key enabler of this shift. OCW's open repository of some of the world's best teaching materials from many leading institutions is an essential foundation. It's quite exciting now to watch the OER ecosystem develop innovative aggregation, social media and certification solutions that will help individuals use OCW content more effectively in their learning.

Q. Is there anything further you'd like to tell our readers about your work with MIT, OCW or anything else?

A. MIT OpenCourseWare was announced ten years ago, and I think the rapid growth of the OCW movement has exceeded everyone's expectations. The next ten years look poised to continue this momentum; people are so eager to learn. I feel lucky to contribute to something that's used and appreciated by so many people!

Want to read more about MIT's OCW initiative? Check out our interview with senior manager Kate James.

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