March/April 2002 // Commentary
Open Knowledge and Open CourseWare Initiatives:
An Interview with MIT's Phil Long
by Steven W. Gilbert and Phillip Long
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Steven W. Gilbert and Phillip Long "Open Knowledge and Open CourseWare Initiatives:
An Interview with MIT's Phil Long" The Technology Source, March/April 2002. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Phil Long is currently the senior strategist for the med a "compassionate pioneer" for his work initiating new projects, new ideas, and new ways of doing things, while demonstrating compassion through his willingness and commitment to help his colleagues move along in the same direction. Now at MIT, Long is working on several important initiatives in open source software and open courseware development.

The open source software development approach makes the source code of software freely and easily available to almost anyone. Ideally, under the open source approach, a large community of capable individuals contributes to improvements in that source code, while a quality control system manages the interactions. This interview focuses on two initiatives at MIT that are working to apply the open source approach to produce the practices, tools, and content necessary for higher education.

Steve Gilbert [SG]: Can you tell us about your work in open source software development?

Phil Long [PL]: We have two major projects underway at MIT. The first is OKI, the Open Knowledge Initiative. OKI was developed to support faculty who were trying to do more sophisticated and creative things with online education, but who were becoming increasingly frustrated with the available tools and products. Stanford University had been dealing with a similar circumstance and coming to a similar conclusion (for example, see their recent announcement regarding their adoption of the CourseWork system). We began conversations about developing something modular and fundamentally open-source that would allow for smooth integration of a learning management system into a variety of different existing enterprise systems on campuses, so that we could work on it as a community. The intention was to build an open-source architecture for online delivery of material, initially using a browser as the anticipated user interface, though we do not want to be dependent exclusively on Web technologies.

The OKI architectural design is both layered and flexible. It is layered in the sense that services required by learning modules should be provided to the designer without necessitating that s/he reinvent them. By services, I'm referring to basic needs such as authentication, authorization or logging user input. It is flexible in that the instructional designer can chose to incorporate whatever functions they wish, and omit those they don't want. This is different from courseware vendors who have approached the problem by designing a suite of integrated functions for presenting content, managing class lists, quizzing, etc. A faculty member might want to have just a simulation engine and discussion list, and the instructional designer should be able to provide just that.

OKI was originally conceived of as a project with MIT taking the lead, partnering with Stanford and looking for a third institution to join the team. We were overwhelmed by the community interest and the offers to contribute to the effort. In response, and in consultation with the Mellon Foundation, we have broadened the participation in the development of OKI to eleven institutions. We are expecting our partners not only to contribute to the design of the system, but to build tools to broaden the functionality of the learning management system. We are also getting advice from our OKI advisory committee of academic technology leaders from around the US and England. I should note that we are also working closely with other efforts, including ADL-CoLab project.

The second major initiative in teaching and learning online is the OpenCourseWare initiative (OCW). The idea behind the OCW is to provide the content of MIT education to anyone anywhere in the world for use, reuse, modification, or enhancement. It is meant to be free to stimulate other institutions nationally and internationally to improve themselves, and by extension, us. OCW reflects the value proposition we have about what is important about an MIT education—namely, that an MIT education is fundamentally about putting excellent students together with excellent faculty supported by strong resources. The learning materials that students use and faculty create to support teaching are important, but secondary to the equation. As such, the content can be shared freely without jeopardizing the real value of learning at MIT. This decision is a result of community discussions among MIT faculty regarding MIT's approach to online instruction and content. The infrastructure used to deliver this content is the focus of OKI; the content itself is province of OCW.

SG: MIT has been careful to make it clear that making this material freely available does not mean that MIT courses are available online. Many people, however, do not seem to have grasped this point.

PL: People send e-mails asking, "How can I take the OpenCourseWare class to get my degree?" OpenCourseWare is not an online teaching environment; it is the opportunity to have faculty at MIT present their view of good teaching material, the sequencing of teaching material, good problem sets, and appropriate types of activities. It is a representation of content and sequencing and thoughtful selection and juxtaposition of materials. It is an exposure to a public audience of the decisions and processes that faculty members go through to come to the point of having a collection of resources and materials to use when teaching a particular course.

SG: Suppose in a couple of years the Open Knowledge Initiative has been successful in developing the tools and materials that you have described for us. Could somebody at another institution then start using those tools and materials from the OpenCourseWare initiative and say, "I've got the tools that were developed for and by MIT people, I've got the content for and by MIT people, so I'm really offering what amounts to an MIT course"?

PL: We do hope our material will be freely used by anybody and everybody. But we are approaching the distribution of this material in a measured manner. We have not yet finished developing the source code for the Open Knowledge Initiative, beyond pieces of it and a test environment that acts as a proof of concept for some of the design. These elements do not make an MIT education. An MIT education requires a combination of the content in conjunction with a faculty member and the critical element, the students, mixed together in an environment that supports inquiry and provides first-rate facilities to support the pursuit of knowledge. I would say that some variation of this would be true of any institution. The faculty's choice of materials and their choice of delivery vehicles for those materials are important but insufficient in fully defining what it is to get an education at the university.

SG: And at the individual course level?

PL: We want to develop innovative pedagogical tools that allow for exploration of disciplines and specific content in ways that we have not had before. But how it's used, when it's used, and the choice of learning objectives must be determined by the faculty. An example of an innovative pedagogical tool might be something that guides a student through creating and expanding a reflective record of their coursework. This is sometimes referred to as a student portfolio.

SG: Is the budget of the OpenCourseWare initiation available, so that other institutions can see what is involved financially in this project?

PL: The preliminary budget for OCW called for an initial level of $11 million. The goal of this early phase is to investigate the processes that will be required for successful production of the final OCW Web site. The development team will be working with faculty to design a set of draft templates for OCW course materials to accommodate the diverse range of courses and teaching styles offered at MIT. A major goal is to develop preliminary production processes for converting faculty-generated source materials into OCW-compatible formats. In the OCW format, we've estimated the cost at about 100 million dollars for 2,000 courses. And we anticipate that it is about a six- to seven-year project. There is also the intent to refresh the courses over this period; the refresh cycle is about every three to four years. Our primary goals for the OCW site are to have 100 courses up by September of 2002, 250 released by March of 2003, and 500 by September of 2003. The original $11 million was generously provided by the Mellon Foundation, along with the Hewlett Foundation.

SG: Is there a plan for engaging or identifying the needs of schools that are less well-endowed than research institutions, such as community colleges or small liberal arts colleges?

PL: We certainly are interested in this, and we have an obligation to our Mellon colleagues to pay careful attention to small liberal arts institutions and the kinds of tools that will be useful and valuable to them. We have internal discussions underway with respect to how we can address the community college sector. In the early stages our scope is limited to getting the architectural specifications out and, by the nature of the requirement, engaging in the pragmatic research and development to accomplish this.

SG: Any closing remarks?

PL: I ask people to continue to look at the OCW and OKI Web sites, and to ask us questions and share ideas. In addition, we have articles in EDUCAUSE Review, "New Horizons: Building 'Open' Frameworks for Education" (Long, Kumar, Vijay, & Merriman, 2001), and Syllabus, "OpenCourseWare: Simple Idea, Profound Implications" (Long, 2002), that might also be helpful. Let us know about relevant presentations at conferences. What we are trying to do is build for the future, yet the natural and appropriate tendency is also to describe what we are doing today. If there are examples of tools and applications that people have built in their own institutions, having an understanding of those would be very helpful to us.

[Editor's note: This article is modified from a TLT Group Webcast conducted October 2, 2001.]


Long, P. D. (2002, January) OpenCourseWare: Simple idea, profound implications. Syllabus. Retrieved February 5, 2002, from

Long, P. D., Kumar, M. S. Vijay, & Merriman, J. (2001). New horizons: Building "open" frameworks for education. EDUCAUSE Review, 36(6), 80-81. Retrieved November 26, 2001, from

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