How Can Carnegie Mellon's Open Learning Initiative Help You?

If you frequent our blog, you're probably familiar with OpenCourseWare (OCW), free online college course material that you can access to augment your knowledge in a chosen field. For about a decade, Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University has offered an interesting twist on OCW with their Open Learning Initiative (OLI), an adaptive instructional tool that uses complex software to provide constant helpful feedback for its students. How can the OLI benefit you?

By Eric Garneau

open learning initiative carnegie mellon oli ocw oer

For Open Learners

If you're looking to get some college-level education for free on the Internet, Carnegie Mellon's OLI is a great place to turn, especially if they're offering courses in subjects that interest you. Currently the school's OLI site hosts 11 different classes in disciplines like engineering, French and mass media, with more courses coming soon. If students just want a quick refresher, they can 'peek in' to each course and skim the reading material at their leisure, as is typical of most OCW.

However, the OLI goes one step further. If students create an account, the OLI allows them to 'join' a class and keep track of their progress with regular assessments of their learning comprehension. These assessments adapt to individual students' needs and help direct them through a course the way a professor would in a 1-on-1 college setting. In this way, OLI courses mirror a typical academic experience more than most OCW - they give students a way to make sure they're picking up the right lessons, which can be a powerful help when it comes to otherwise self-guided learning.

For Students at Traditional Institutions

The OLI can also be used in conjunction with typical brick-and-mortar schools. In fact, some believe that OLI does its best work when used as a hybrid with standard college courses. Instructors can set up a so-called 'Academic Course' that their students enroll in with a special code. Then, those instructors can track their students' progress through detailed feedback like the students themselves get. They can assign grades based on students' online work, and perhaps more importantly, the OLI frees up class time for them to concentrate on concepts that their students find more difficult rather than trying to cover a broad base of knowledge as quickly as possible. In 2009 the director of the OLI, Candace Thille, told Inside Higher Ed that such a system allows postsecondary educators to make use of their expertise in a classroom setting instead of having to waste time on basic survey-course knowledge.

Does this sound appealing to you? Would you like to engage in mostly self-directed learning and cut down on the time you have to spend in class, maybe even to nothing? If so, the OLI wants to help you out. Their site offers tips for setting up OLI hybrid programs at your school and can make it easier to convince your educators to adopt OLI courses in their own classrooms. It's important to note that OLI doesn't do any assessment on their own - they merely provide the data from which your professors can make their own assessments.

The Future

Carnegie Mellon's OLI could soon become an even more potent purveyor of postsecondary education, even outside a hybrid model like the one described above. The open learning community has been abuzz following Web developer Mozilla's recent announcement of its open badges infrastructure. And while there doesn't yet seem to be any official talk concerning open badging applying to the OLI, that seems like exactly the kind of thing badging's made for. Could it be that you'll soon be able to go to Carnegie Mellon's free course website, enroll in an online class, get detailed feedback about your performance there and earn a widely respected credential as proof of subject mastery? It's certainly possible.

Until then, though, OLI's still a fantastic resource for any dedicated self-starters who want to gain a little college knowledge. Its sophisticated software makes it unlike almost any other OCW experience out there, and the pedigree of the institution offering it guarantees its quality. And haven't you always wanted to take that class on logic and proofs?

Mellon's OLI was recently a finalist in's first annual OCW People's Choice Awards under the category of 'most interactive'. Check out the other finalists.

Next: View Schools

Popular Schools

The listings below may include sponsored content but are popular choices among our users.

Find your perfect school

What is your highest level of education?