Sneak preview of my Frankly Speaking article.

One of the reasons that I came to Olin was to build a new college. However this college was to be no ordinary college, this college was to be a model of how to change engineering education in the United States in the next century. Olin’s founding precepts were taken from the recommendations of a Nation Science Foundation Study of engineering education in the United States. We conducted “research into ‘best practices’ at other institutions” (Invention 2000) and from that research and those recommendations we formed the Strategic Plan. Part of that plan was that “Olin must expand and institutionalize its culture of innovation and improvement”. We have stood on the shoulders of giants to form this institution. Yet we have done little to help others stand on ours.

The Internet is the easiest and most efficient knowledge distribution ever created (just ask the RIAA). It was originally created to disseminate technical papers and other academic information and while recently it has been commercialized, it still has a vibrant academic community. It is the most efficient way for Olin to begin to contribute back to the academic community, but today Olin has not even begun to tap the potential of the Internet. An open, simple, centralized method of putting our work (courses, assignments and projects) online would be ideal. Some might say an externally facing portfolio system would solve the problem, however no such portfolio system can be seen on the horizon. Others would say that this is Blackboard’s role within the institution. Though Blackboard is often marketed as such a solution, it is not. In fact, Blackboard is built to fundamentally oppose knowledge transfer. Blackboard’s closed proprietary nature makes it impossible for the general public to access the information stored within it.

I use college professors’ websites at other institutions on a weekly basis. If those professors had chosen to use Blackboard I would never have been able to benefit from their work simply because I could not access it. Blackboard inherently discourages collaboration among institutions. If we truly are committed to our academic ideals we must switch from Blackboard to a system that is truly open. This migration process will not be simple because Blackboard does not make it simple. They would prefer that their customers were not able to use competing products. This is all the more reason to act quickly; the costs of migrating will only increase with time.

For an example of sharing knowledge you can visit the Foundations of Computer Science (FOCS) website at (http://focs.olin.edu). This site is currently accessible by outside visitors and it documents much of what happened during the course. While the site is by no means a polished textbook, it represents a unique synthesis and combination of the material found nowhere else and may present value to some external visitor. It also shows that minimal effort is required to make it available to the outside world.

Switching away from Blackboard is not the only thing that we can do to help alleviate this problem. Students and faculty can make their work available on the Internet (as FOCS has already done). I know that students and professors work incredibly hard to produce presentations, papers and projects. Yet this work is often doomed never to see the light of day after it has been completed. Yet the work could be incredibly valuable to others if they could only access it. So I ask you to take the time at the end of the semester to make your work available to others by placing it in your Olin provided webspace. A fancy web site is not necessary even posting PDFs is better than nothing. We all know that we have benefited from someone’s work. Now it’s our turn to return the favor.