Forum .LRN Q&A: Re: .LRN, OCW, CMS and MIT!

Posted by Alfred Essa on
In some ways I have the inside scoop on MIT, in other ways I don't. Take what I say as one data point and build your own picture accordingly. It will take several postings to answer Venkatesh's questions, so bear with me.

MIT is a diverse and complex place. It's also a very successful institution because it encourages people to think for themselves, while also granting tremendous autonomy to individuals and LDCs (Laboratories, Departments and Centers for Research).

Here is the story as I know it behind OCW and Microsoft. OCW is to content what open source is to code. There is a genuine and widely held belief at MIT, starting from President Chuck Vest and with many faculty, that all course materials should be made freely available to the world.

When the OCW project began, a new unit was spawned at MIT to make this happen at an extremely aggressive pace. MIT hired Ann Margulies, a brilliant woman to lead the overall OCW effort, and Cec d'Oliviera, another brilliant woman to lead the technical effort. They hired Sapient initially as a consultant. You have to remember that the technical goal for OCW was and is very narrow and focused: have an input system for the most current course materials and an output publication mechanism to the web. The looked at all the available systems (including SloanSpace/.LRN) and chose Microsoft Content Management Server. .LRN is not a content management system and given the time pressure and scope of their project, I probably would have chosen the same thing. I don't know this for sure but I am fairly confident that Microsoft gave them the CMS product and most of the consulting support for free. If I were in their shoes, I probably would have made the same choice. But their needs are not our needs.

Two things to note. First, the folks who run OCW at MIT are smart, experienced, and savvy people Ann Margulies used to be the CIO at Harvard. Cecelia d'Oliveira was an instrumental player in Project Athena at MIT. These guys don't make decisions based solely on reading Gartner studies. They also don't "sell" out. Second, and this is the point about autonomy, the decision to go with Microsoft by OCW was a decision made by the OCW team based on their needs and analysis. But their needs are not our needs.

Several months ago, I posted a diagram showing the relationship among some of the initiatives at MIT. Each of these is a separate project with a different history, motivation, and result.

I am not sure what PhilG's point was. Is it that programming jobs are going off shore? That's not new or news. Is it that fact that he is peddling .NET? That's not new or news. Is it that fact that he no longer believes in open source? I suspect, though I am not sure, that PhilG believes that open source is a passing phase, not unlike the pangs of first love and acne, which we eventually grow out of. Real men and women, and real companies, don't do open source.

Whatever PhilG believes, the commitment to open source is alive and well at MIT. The principal premise of .LRN is that the infrastructure for learning applications must be part of the commons, owned by no one and available to all. Here I am not speaking for MIT but nonetheless the sentiment is I believe widely shared.

More later.