Monday, September 29, 2008

Open Courseware is not the be-all and end-all

MIT's Open Courseware gets a lot of press. And a lot of it is well deserved -- it's fairly comprehensive, and does a good job managing the technical side of throwing vast amounts of material up on the internets (hooray for PDF). But it's not everything.

The past few days I've been stressing over various topics from my genetics class, mostly yeast tetrad analysis. Going to lecture hardly helps; for this class, it's been generally true that the more confusing topics are very poorly explained. Usually the textbook does a good job of explaining things, but it doesn't cover yeast tetrads hardly at all. And I have a test in two days.

(Yeast tetrad analysis is pretty interesting, by the way. I might write a post about it if I ever actually understand it.)

Turning to OCW didn't help, because more or less the same professors have been teaching the class for N years, so the lecture notes are exactly the same. I can get practice problems (old homeworks and exams), which are very useful once I actually understand something, but not in this case.

So I turned to Google. And lo and behold, googling {yeast tetrad analysis} brings up several universities' intro-genetics webpages about yeast tetrad analysis! With clear, coherent explanations and well-drawn diagrams! UC Berkeley (pdf), Indiana U (pdf), U of Saskatchewan, and U of Rochester, just to name a few.

(Even better, some of those are straight-up webpages. Better than everything being PDF, although not better than everything being .doc, which sometimes happens.)

I often hear, second or third hand, how people from other schools use MIT OCW all the time. And I'm not denying that OCW is awesome. But it's not perfect, and there are other places to go if the OCW explanation of a topic happens to be consistently lousy.