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"Open source" education

MichelleLOyen's picture

A new AP article appeared today on  free access to college's educational materials, particularly spot-lighting the MIT Open Course Ware initiative.   Also discussed are available educational materials through iTunes and Youtube.   iMechanica has also got a growing repository of course notes on mechanics topics. 

I was chatting with a colleague about this phenomenon and relating my intentions to post some lecture notes on iMech as soon as I get them typed up.  This led to a discussion on the pros and cons of posting lecture notes, which I thought was quite interesting and would make a useful topic of discussion.  I can see a few advantages, in terms of getting feedback from the community and perhaps some help identifying errors or weak points in the notes.  The article noted above also talks about access to information in developing countries, identifying other more altruistic reasons for posting lecture notes from western universities.  I'm sure there are more justifications in favor of open access lecture notes and I'd love to hear them.

However, I know that at my own institution this has been at times discouraged, and I have chatted with people who have expressed a reluctance to do so.  I am interested in what people think are the disadvantages or reasons not to post lecture notes on iMech. or elsewhere. 


yoursdhruly's picture

Dr. Oyen,

Thanks for the very interesting article - it was nice to see it started off with a reference to Prof. Strang: my first (and only lasting) use of open courseware was Prof. Strang's incredibly inspiring videos on linear algebra, to which I owe a debt for getting me through my exams while making me understand and enjoy linear algebra in a way I could never achieve through books and notes, indeed never thought possible. My personal take is biased, being as it is from a (lazy) student's perspective and is this: I have rarely found lecture notes to be very effective and would rather spend my time reading a text. On the other hand, lecture vidoes surpass notes and books, for obvious reasons.

I have taken a few excellent courses at Purdue from very senior
Professors and have often felt it would be tragic if these lectures
could not be recorded for posterity and would be lost once the faculty member retired. In some sense, teaching is an art, and truly great teachers are artists whose art should be preserved for eternity, just as any other great art is.

I know this is somewhat of a digression, bringing in video, but I believe it is inevitable, if the spirit of open source education is
to be taken to its fullest level of impact. The effectiveness of video, it seems to me, far outperforms that of lecture notes. If that is true, then
lecture notes may become less sought after anyway.


MichelleLOyen's picture

Hey Dhruv,

I don't think that's off topic at all;  the article did mention videos and youtube but spent more time on MIT open course ware.  But you make a great point, that it's far easier to learn something by having someone explain it to you than to try to dig through a book or pages of notes--especially for a new subject or topic.

The question that comes up in my mind is, should videos replace live teaching?  If you could get a full set of videos of, say, Bill Nix teaching his thin films class, would anyone have to ever teach it again?  Is this the future of the university?



I agree with Zhigang that we need a combination of books, notes, videos, conversations on iMechanica, and indeed anything that's available.  The goal is to gain a deep understanding of a subject in a short period of time.  I feel that the approach that works best varies with the individual.  I learn better from written material and by working things out on my own rather than from listening to teachers.

My experience has been that class lectures and videos give me a basic feel for a subject, lecture notes provide a deeper understanding,  books and papers give me an intutive feel for the subject (provided I work through all the details painstakingly), and discussions clarify ideas and remove misconceptions. 

My understanding of tensor calculus, elasticity, and continuum mechanics comes not from courses I have taken on these topics or from the texts by Timoshenko or  Malvern/Fung.  Rather, what I understand comes primarily from reading the section on elasticity by Gurtin in Encylopedia of Physics, the book on elasticity by Landau and Lipshitz, and from Rebecca Brannon's notes on tensors and rotations.   Significantly, it was only when I started working out the details of Simo's papers on plasticity and geometrically exact shells that I realized that there were large parts of tensor calculus I still wasn't confident about.

-- Biswajit

I'd like to place my personal opinion about the subject which arises directly from my experience and action.

I studied as a Mechanical Eng. (5 years) and i was working in parallel full time in the area of industry and especially in fields

of Design programming and manufacturing of CNC machines and later as I participated successfully 2 Msc's courses (COMP.MECHANICS and APPLIED MECHANICS) i continued to work in the area of FEA.As you understand my reading and my studies were based mostly on notes and lectures that i had borrowed from colleagues in the university. Right now I advance my studies as i am working for my PhD.I would be happy if i had the sources for direct pick up or download lectures notes and studying material,and especially live lectures.Believe me that if you can have a base level of knowledge you do not realy need the direct contact with the proffecor.To my opinion this kind (it sounds at least strange i know) will be the future of advanced studies namely learning in parallel with your job living with your family (I mean a real family wife or husband ,Kids) as the day has 24 hours and in my age you need only 4 for sleeping.

Zhigang Suo's picture

This thread of discussion reminds me of a previous one, Google will videotape all Harvard classes and make them universally accessible.  It is fun to speculate about the future, especially when the future is not far away.

Are videos better mode of transmitting knowledge?  It depends.  After listening to a really interesting lecture on a complex subject, we would like to follow up by reading a paper, or part of a textbook.  The two modes of transmitting knowledge, lectures and texts, are complementary. 

I would like to point to a significant role of texts for teachers.  Most teachers write notes one way or another, hand written or typed up.   For many, writing notes is the most effective way to prepare for lectures.  Now, in writing the notes, previous notes are the easiest starting point.  The reason is very simple:  texts are easy to manipulate.  I can splice Rice's paragraph, Hutchinson's section, and my own equations together.  Try to do this with videos!  Even when the technology of videos become really easy to use, I suspect we will still have reasons to read texts. 

This brings me to a main point I'd like to make.  We might as well preserve knowledge in all modes, videos, texts, conversations, well prepared, poorly prepared.  The producer will choose whatever modes most convenient to her, and the consumer will choose whatever modes please him at the moment. 

Technology will be available to record everything ever said, written, or acted, if we so desire.  Preserving everyting may become so cheap that it makes judging what to preserve ridiculously time-consuming.  Just think about all your digital photos.  Who has the time to go through them to decide which one to delete? 

Will videos by superstar teachers replace lectures of other teachers?  Probably not.  Here is an approximate evidence.  Most fictions ever written tell a single story:  love.  You would think by now the story must have been thoroughly told.  Maybe.  But still we are readily moved by a new love story, told by a new author who will never be a superstar.  We crave for immediacy, for variations, for novelty.  Another example more specific to us.  I don't have a favorite book on elasticity.  I like several books for different reasons.  I like even better the notes I took in a class taught by Budiansky.

There must be a theorem like this:  If a story is worth telling in one way, it is worth telling in many ways.  Let us tell the same story in all possible ways, in all its depth, splendor, and variation.   

Temesgen Markos's picture

This is an interesting discussion. I sometimes watch some of the videos available on MIT's ocw and other sources. Like Dhruv my favorite one is Prof. Strang's Linear Algebra video set.

The good thing with these videos is that they can be watched on my convenience. But do I think videos will obviate the need for a lecture? Definitely no. There have been times when I watch a video and fell like giving a comment or asking for clarifications. I can't get it and this is what I get only by attending the lectures in person (or video conference).

Personally, I also enjoy the interaction with professors during coffee breaks where we either continue a class discussion or tell us something from their personal experience. I get a lot out of them. It's not just the delivery that matters; the interaction and getting feedbacks (both ways) are equally important, if not more. The discussions among students themselves, or a student answering to some other student's question also help. So  every other factor such as time constraint, accessibility, cost etc being equal, I would prefer attending a lecture than watching a recorded one.

On Dr. Oyen's question, one reason people may refrain from having their lecture notes posted on freely accessible pages can be business related. What I mean is that professors and administrators might feel that they are giving away what they produced for their own students who in one way or another pay for it. If they think of lecture notes, slides, worksheets etc as items on the package that they 'sell' to their students, then I would understand if they start protecting it. Long before MIT and other open course ware pages came into existence, universities used to post educational materials online. But they required institution id's and passwords. Some still do this.

I am assuming that Dr. Oyen's question was on why some people are reluctant to let their materials be freely available online. If it was about refusing to put them online even for their own students, then I may 'politely' attribute it to old school reluctance of adopting technology.

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