Carnegie Mellon Online Learning Initiative (OLI)

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          More than a decade ago, the late Herbert Simon, Nobel Laureate and professor at Carnegie Mellon University, stated, “Improvement in postsecondary education will require converting teaching from a solo sport to a community-based research activity.” Simon’s emphatic stance has informed the development and implementation of Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative (OLI), which began as an effort to integrate digital cognitive tutors and standalone online courses. Beginning in 2002, with funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the OLI embarked on a program to develop an online curriculum for “anyone who wants to learn or teach” (Source: OLI website,

In his article, “The Real Precipice,” Richard Holmgren, Vice President for Information Services and Planning at Allegheny College, cautions that the “real threat to traditional higher education embraces a more radical vision that removes faculty from the organizational center and uses cognitive science to organize the learning around the learner. Such models exist now.”[1] Holmgren goes on to describe how the OLI uses a team approach that includes cognitive scientists, instructional designers, technologists, and faculty disciplinary specialists to design interactive online courses. For a decade or more, the work of the OLI has embodied Peter Stokes’ definition of adaptive learning as “an environment where technology and brain science collaborate with big data to carve out customized pathways through curriculums for individual learners.” Further, the OLI process is an example of learning analytics at work, as researchers use the data generated from course interactions for persistent course evaluation and re-development as articulated in the goals of the program. The goals of the Carnegie Online Learning Initiative include:

  • Support better learning and instruction with scientifically based, classroom-tested online courses and materials.
  • Share courses and materials openly and freely so that anyone can learn. OLI courses are used by institutions to supplement classroom instruction. They are also designed to support individual independent learners.
  • Develop a community of use, research, and development to allow for the continuous evaluation, improvement, and growth of courses and course materials.
    (Source: OLI website,

Holmgren notes that although the OLI is a “proof-of-concept endeavor,” it has made compelling advances in blending cognitive science, machine learning, and instructional design. These advances are documented in research from Ithaka S+R that compared face-to-face learning to the hybrid courses rooted in the OLI model. Holmgren notes that according to the study “hybrid courses were at least as effective in promoting student understanding of statistics as traditional courses. Further, students in the hybrid courses learned as much even though they spent significantly less time in learning activities, which echoes earlier work by OLI showing that Carnegie Mellon students learned statistics with OLI in half the time that students in traditional courses did.”[2]

Carnegie Mellon has enjoyed a long history of successful integration of cognitive science and technology into learning environments. Prominent among those efforts is the for-profit Carnegie Learning, recently purchased by the Apollo Group. Carnegie Learning’s development of digital cognitive tutors to assess students’ knowledge and competency and provide a curriculum tailored to individual skill levels was instrumental in crafting the OLI. Embedded cognitive tutors, interactive engagements, and immediate feedback are fundamental components of the OLI. Anya Kamenetz describes the assessment and feedback experience of a learner using the OLI as “what might happen in a classroom under ideal circumstances, with a teacher of infinite patience, undivided attention, and inexhaustible resources of examples and hints” (Kamenetz, Anya, DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, New York: Chelsea Green, 2010, 91).

As Holmgren notes, the findings of the Ithaka S+R study are a bit of a milestone. “We can howl in protest, but the question is no longer whether computer-based, intelligent agents can prompt learning of some material at least as well as instructor-focused courses. The question is whether the computer-based version can become even more effective than traditional models, and the implications for higher education are sobering.”

In addition to demonstrable learning outcomes, the assessment and feedback model helps with one of the other distinctive aspects of the OLI: the process is in a persistent state of iterative research, design, assessment, and re-deployment. Cognitive science and instructional design inform initial course development and production, and aggregated data from intentional feedback loops informs subsequent iterations.

In the foreword to Unlocking The Gates: How And Why Leading Universities Are Opening Up Access To Their Courses (Taylor Walsh and Ithaka S+R, Princeton University Press, 2011), William G. Bowen describes the benefits and costs of Carnegie Mellon’s Online Learning Initiative. Bowen writes that “The OLI is exciting precisely because it may offer the possibility of achieving real productivity gains by substituting well-designed online instruction for the labor-intensive ways in which we still teach many basic courses, including some that lend themselves to less labor-intensive teaching methods.” Bowen argues that, despite the costs of programs like the OLI, in the current economic environment “we just can‘t afford to continue doing business as usual. We have to find ways to do more with less. Resources saved in this way could be redeployed to teach more students or, conceivably, to teach advanced students more effectively.” In his view, the OLI has potential in large part because it “lends itself to standard statistical assessments of outcomes—of what was achieved, and at what cost.”

The cost is significant. As noted in the Ithaka S+R study, “a new OLI course currently costs about $500,000 to develop—and that figure represents a decline over time, as some of the earlier courses cost over $1 million each.”

With significant overhead involved in developing even a single course in this model, it is not surprising that so few courses have been completed.  However, the cost does not mean lack of utility or viability.  Because Carnegie Mellon is committed to the Open Education Resources movement, all of the OLI courses are available and are being used by educators and students all over the world. According to the Ithaka S+R study, between 2006 and 2010 there were 18,516 student registrations for the Academic Version and—significantly—73,062 registrations for the open (and free) courses representing global use in 214 countries. Although it would be financially impossible for a lone institution to adopt and sustain the grant-funded OLI methodology to develop and deliver adaptive learning courses, it is conceivable that the model has potential in the distributed, unbundled model of MOOCs.

[1] Richard Holmgren, “The Real Precipice: Essay on How Technology and New Ways of Teaching Could Upend Colleges’ Traditional Models,” Inside Higher Ed, April 15, 2013,

[2] Ibid.


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