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Dec. 14: Open Learning Initiative Receives Hewlett Foundation Grant


Jonathan Potts

Carnegie Mellon's Open Learning Initiative Moves
To Next Level With Hewlett Foundation Grant

Researchers Will Investigate Whether Online Education Program Can Cut Learning Time    

PITTSBURGH—Thanks to a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University will be able to investigate whether students using an online education program in conjunction with traditional classroom instruction can complete a college course in far less time than it would normally take.    

The foundation has awarded the university a $2.25 million grant for further development of the Open Learning Initiative (OLI), a collaboration of cognitive scientists, human-computer interaction experts and veteran faculty who create online versions of introductory-level college courses. The goal of the program is making high-quality university instruction widely available over the Internet. The success of the courses already provided by the OLI suggests that students using an online educational program in conjunction with traditional classroom instruction can complete a college course in less time than in a traditional course alone.    

"The Open Learning Initiative may prove to be a tipping point for online instruction. The courses are proving exceptionally effective in providing online instruction with little intervention by human instructors," said Joel M. Smith, vice provost and chief information officer for Carnegie Mellon.    

The latest award is the largest of the three grants that Carnegie Mellon has received for OLI from the Hewlett Foundation, bringing the foundation's total funding for the project to $5.6 million.    

"Carnegie Mellon's Open Learning Initiative epitomizes the potential we see for making educational resources available on the Internet," said Catherine Casserly, a program officer in education at the Hewlett Foundation. "By exploring the efficacy of online learning, the Carnegie Mellon initiative holds the promise of transforming education."

A major difference between OLI and other online education programs is that OLI incorporates extensive research into how people successfully learn undertaken by professors at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh's Learning Research and Development Center. The courses provide real-time feedback, pinpoint students' individual weaknesses and provide them with individualized tutoring so they are able to work at their own pace. Courses currently available include chemistry, French, logic, causal reasoning and statistics.

During the 2005-06 academic year, Statistics Professor Oded Myer demonstrated that Carnegie Mellon students, learning statistics solely through the OLI course, performed just as well on exams as students who took the university's traditional introductory statistics course. The next step will be to determine whether students using the OLI materials to augment conventional classroom instruction can complete a 15-week statistics course in half that time. OLI researchers also plan to conduct the same study with other OLI courses and at other institutions.

"Educational technology has not had the impact we had all hoped for because these efforts have largely ignored the major scientific advances in understanding how humans learn that have been developed in the learning sciences over the last 25 years," Smith said. "The OLI, in contrast, is systematically leveraging this knowledge in creating online instruction. That is what is different about OLI and why it heralds an entirely new day in using technology to improve education and extend access to quality education throughout the world."

The OLI instructional programs can be accessed at For more on the Hewlett Foundation's work in open educational resources, visit