A Quick Look at Planning for Distance Learning in Open Courseware

Course URL: http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/electrical-engineering-and-computer-science/6-901-inventions-and-patents-fall-2005/index.htm.

This week I have been analysing Open Courseware websites and considering how much evidence of planning in the instructional design phase can be sensed. Open Courseware involves education institutes sharing course materials for public use (Simonson et al. 2012).  The example I used for reference is MIT’S Open Courseware.

MIT’s Open Courseware website is very easy to navigate and has very useful features to help you find a course that interests you for study. You can search by topic, sub-topics and specialties to find a suitable course. The course I looked at was a course studying Patents and Inventions. The course description explains that the course covers ‘the history of private and public rights in scientific discoveries and applied engineering, leading to the development of worldwide patent systems’. The course was taught originally by Dr. Robert Rines in autumn 2005.

The course on Patent and Inventions was a graduate programme taught through web-facilitated learning. There was one face-to-face lecture of 3 hours each every week. The course features an introduction video interview with the lecturer Dr. Rines, and he gives a useful run-down on how the instruction is offered. Readings for the studies were made available online and then the content was discussed and dealt with in the face-to-face lectures afterwards. Often, the face-to-face classes involved guest speakers from the world of Patents. Dr. Rines explains that the online part of the studies was important ‘to prepare the class for the materials… so that they understand it’ before the face-to-face tuition and guest speakers.

It was very interesting to hear Dr. Rines discuss his programme as he touched upon a number of issues that are at the very core of instructional design. For example, he stressed how learner analysis was instrumental in the development of the course. He explains that a lot of the course organisation ‘came from the students’ themselves, suggesting how they would like to learn, what kind of guest speakers they would like to hear from etc. This theme of course development was also driven by the fact that with changes in the Patents and Technology sector the course also needed to be changed with time. Simonson et al. (2012) are very clear on the importance that such continuous evaluation plays in effective instructional design, stating that ‘it is vital to determine what works and what need to be improved’ (p153). Dr. Rines explanation of how the course developed is a clear indication to me that the course was thoughtfully planned, evaluated and then re-evaluated over time.

Another important aspect of the course that I appreciated was that it very much encouraged active learning. The course was studied partly through distance and partly on campus, and in cases where distance learning is utilised it is imperative that the instruction ‘engage all the learners in active learning’ to keep students ‘in tune’ (Simsonson et al, 2012, p159). In a section of the course entitled ‘Course Pedagogy’ Dr. Rhines emphasises how important a role active learning plays in the Patents and Inventions programme. He writes the he ‘challenged [his] students to concern themselves with problem areas of their own personal interests, and to do original research anent to submitting analysis and thinking for class discussion’. The course assignments challenge students to think about the required readings they work through online with a view to contributing to discussions in the face-to-face part of the study. I believe there is evidence of planning for distance learning in this approach, as it keeps students engaged and learning actively, even when not physically being together or with the instructor. The final assessment for the course then took the form of a final project that the student would work on privately, develop with discussion in class and present to the class in the final week of study.

In conclusion, I was quite impressed with the instructional design of this MIT Open Courseware course. Obviously, the fact that students did meet on campus once a week made learner analysis more manageable, but the continuous development of the course taking into account student feedback was notable and praiseworthy. In addition, the encouragement of active learning and having a course planned with active learning in mind greatly increases the chances of the online resources and remote study being successful. I believe this is a good example of a well-designed wed-facilitated course.


Simonson, Michael, Sharon Smaldino, Michael Albright, and Susan Zvacek (2012). Teaching and learning at a distance: foundations of distance education. Boston, M.A: Pearson.

MIT Open Courseware (n.d). Course Introduction [Video file]. Retrieved from http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/electrical-engineering-and-computer-science/6-901-inventions-and-patents-fall-2005/syllabus/.



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