You can’t just read an engineering textbook and expect to go out and build a bridge. And if you’ve never studied French, the odds are that having a French dictionary won’t help much when you ask for directions in Paris. If access to information were all it took to be educated, we wouldn’t need universities, just libraries.
As the Internet becomes more and more a vast library without walls, it is also becoming a potentially powerful tool for learning. At the Open Learning Initiative (OLI), which Carnegie Mellon University researchers launched in 2002 with a grant from the Hewlett Foundation, the quest is on to transform the Internet from library to sprawling university by understanding how people learn on computers.

The project assembles teams of specialists in learning and in the way human beings and computers interact, as well as software designers and university faculty members with expertise in specific fields of study. Together they create courses in a variety of subjects that are available free of charge to anyone who wants to take them. They can be explored at

To date, the results of the research have been promising. In one study, students actually mastered material in less time than is typical in a traditional classroom with a teacher.

Part of a Larger Hewlett Effort

Carnegie Mellon’s project is just one of the many such investigations that the Hewlett Foundation is underwriting as part of its Open Educational Resources Initiative, which seeks out programs designed to provide learning materials to anyone with access to a computer and the internet. The Foundation’s support has made it possible for MIT to put its undergraduate courses online and for the African Virtual University to provide free downloadable material to train teachers in sub-Saharan Africa.

Carnegie Mellon’s Open learning Initiative  courses are designed from scratch to take advantage of the unique educational potential of computers and the Internet. “It’s not just a matter of putting information out there,” says Candace Thille, the initiative’s director. “Students need guiding, focusing, and feedback.”

In a chemistry course, for example, a student can work in a virtual laboratory, with onscreen Bunsen burners and Erlenmeyer flasks, to solve problems related to real-world situations, such as arsenic contamination of groundwater in Bangladesh. A student in a French course can build comprehension by watching videos of conversations and answering questions about what is being said, or by listening to a sentence and then clicking-and-dragging words into the correct order on the screen.

More important, Thille says, the courses provide constant feedback, not only for the student but also for the specialists in the science of learning who designed it, and for instructors, who can use the students’ experiences to improve instructional techniques.

The Carnegie Mellon initiative is “a trailblazer,” says Catherine Casserly, director of the Foundation’s Open Educational Resources grants. “It captures the power of the Internet and applies it to learning outcomes.” The courses provided through OLI are unique, she says, in that students are given ongoing assessment of their progress, as well as alternative approaches to the material to help them learn more effectively.

Learning Faster with the New Techniques

And, in one case, research showed not only that students using the Carnegie Mellon materials are learning, but that they are learning faster than with traditional teach techniques alone. In 2005 and 2006, researchers at Carnegie Mellon tested students who had taken a traditional classroom course in statistics along with students who had taken the OLI statistics course. They found no significant difference between their test scores. And in 2007 the researchers gave volunteers a choice between a traditional classroom course and one that combined the OLI course with classroom work. The combined OLI-classroom group covered the same material that the classroom-only group studied, but did it in half the time, learning fifteen weeks of material in only eight weeks.

Students seem to like it, too. Thille cites several responses by students who took the engineering statics course at Miami University. One student called it “really awesome,” and another liked learning at an individual pace, without feeling rushed. Exercises in the course typically include “hints” that help students solve the problems presented to them. One learner observed, “Even if I get the problem correct, I still look at the hints to clarify.”

The Carnegie Mellon initiative currently offers college-level courses in engineering statics, statistics, causal and statistical reasoning, biology, chemistry, economics, French, logic and proofs, physics, and some specialized mathematics. More than 900 institutions in more than 175 countries have accessed the courses. Some high schools are already using the courses for AP® classes, and OLI is working with a faculty member at Santa Ana Community College in Orange County, California, to adapt the statistics course for use in community college classes with low pass rates and poor retention.

Thille says that the aim of the work  is to “democratize access to knowledge and to reduce the barriers to post-secondary education.” The courses are now aimed at college students, but, she adds, “The design processes and tools could be used for pretty much any level of education.” And despite the comparative novelty of Carnegie Mellon’s  approach and the trendiness of online learning, the initiative  is “not driven by the technology,” she says. The design is driven by the needs of the students and the belief that “knowledge is a public good.”