Each year, 50,000 students participate in Carnegie Mellon University’s online academic courses as part of the institution’s Open Learning Initiative (OLI).

OLI, which began in the early 2000s, is an online learning platform that features not only readings and videos, but also modules, problem-solving exercises, and virtual labs. Norman Bier, Director of OLI and Core Collaborations at CMU, said the initiative aims to create an enriching learning experience for CMU students.

“We’re fairly proud of the approach we take,” Bier said. “Those smaller activities are embedded in the flow of watching videos and reading.”

Over the past 15 years, the university has created between 30 and 40 OLI courses. These courses are divided into two categories: open and free courses, and academic courses. Anyone can access the open courses to learn a quick lesson on a specific subject. Bier said that, for example, people will log in to an open course to learn something about statistics, but would not enroll for an entire semester. The academic courses, on the other hand, are more rigorous. Students enroll for a whole semester and complete an assignment and exercise regimen designed by the professor.

The professors constantly monitor their students’ progress. The course system itself collects data that can provide feedback on where students struggle. The instructors study the online dashboard and observe where students have difficulty; then they step in and clarify confusing problems.

“The best analogy to this is a textbook that asks questions and gathers data,” Bier said. “In this case, there’s no way [for students] to skip the book. It’s a textbook that can give info.”

Online learning and flipped classrooms are becoming increasingly prevalent for universities. Flipped classrooms, which devote the majority of class time to exercises and problem solving rather than lectures, are a prominent part of many higher education curricula, especially those related to STEM fields. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which frequently include videos of professors lecturing, are also becoming popular.

Bier stated that CMU’s OLI produced better results than the average MOOC-style class. While many, though not all, MOOCs feature videos of lectures, OLI involves student engagement through problem solving. He and his colleagues conducted a study that revealed students in the OLI setting retain more information and score better on final exams than students in MOOC classes. While he stated that engagement and active learning were important for tech classes, he also said that professors may tailor their online classroom activities in numerous ways, many of which may produce strong results.

“OLI is flipping this one step further,” Bier said. “There’s a concept in education technology that some institutions have the right way to teach. As amazing as CMU is, I can’t claim the way I teach is the most perfect way for all teachers.”

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Eleanor Lamb
Eleanor Lamb
Eleanor Lamb is a Staff Reporter for MeriTalk covering Big Data, FITARA, Homeland Security, Education, Workforce Issues, and Civilian Agencies.