OLI granted $4 million to develop web-based learning environments

In recognition of the Open Learning Initiative’s dedication to educational opportunities, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Lumina Foundation for Education, and the Hewlett Foundation awarded the OLI with $4 million in grants to expand upon its work.

The Open Learning Initiative began at Carnegie Mellon in 2002 with the goal of creating online courses based on cognitive science. “We bring together teams of faculty experts — in statistics, engineering, and chemistry, for example — with software engineers, with learning science researchers, and human-computer interactions scientists and we develop web-based learning environments: OLIs,” said Candace Thille, the director of the OLI.

The ideal purpose was for a student not attending Carnegie Mellon to be able to take the course with the same level of success as a traditional student. “The goal was that a learner new to the subject could go online and receive the complete performance of instruction for the course — they could learn what the courses were designed to teach using just the OLI course,” said Joel Smith, Carnegie Mellon’s vice provost and chief information officer.

Faculty, cognitive scientists, and human-computer interaction experts worked together to set up this program that not only provided valuable courses but also feedback to its creators. By studying the effects of online courses in and out of the classroom, researchers at both Carnegie Mellon and the Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center can determine if the courses increase learning. Several online courses are used in Carnegie Mellon classrooms today. For example, in the online courses, students can even mix chemical reactions as if in a real laboratory and receive feedback throughout the process.

“After careful design, assessment, and redesign, the evidence shows that OLI course materials, particularly when they are used as part of [a] ‘mixed mode’ of instruction that uses OLI materials but also in-person instruction, do improve learning outcomes,” Smith said.

Early in the experiment, students at Carnegie Mellon were invited to take Statistical Reasoning (36-201) as part of an accelerated learning course. Their results showed that course time could be reduced from the traditional 15 weeks with three lectures a week to eight weeks with two lectures a week. To eliminate outside variables, the experiment was repeated in 2006 and 2009. “The learning gains of the students who used the online course were at least as good, and usually better, than those who attended the traditional course,” said Oded Meyer, director of undergraduate studies in the statistics department.

The OLI at Carnegie Mellon is currently working with community college faculty across the country to implement online courses. Closer to campus, there will be experiments with Computing at Carnegie Mellon as part of an OLI program in summer 2010.

“This could only have happened at Carnegie Mellon because of the history of working across departments and bringing together experts across traditional college boundaries,” Thille said.