What We Do

The Open Learning Initiative (OLI) is a grant-funded group at Carnegie Mellon University, offering innovative online courses to anyone who wants to learn or teach. Our aim is to create high-quality courses and contribute original research to improve learning and transform higher education.

How Did The Open Learning Initiative Get Started?

The first grant that firmly established OLI resulted from conversations held between Carnegie Mellon representatives and Mike Smith and Cathy Casserly from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in the fall of 2001. Smith and Casserly were visiting many institutions across the US, after having just funded MIT’s Open Courseware project, looking for the next “big thing” in online open education.

The concept of the Open Learning Initiative came from the idea of integrating Carnegie Mellon’s expertise in cognitive tutoring into whole online courses that would stand on their own and enact instruction. By 2002, a proposal had been written and funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to develop our first four courses: Causal and Statistical Reasoning, Statistics, Logic & Proofs, and Economics.

Herbert Simon

The late Herbert Simon, Nobel Laureate and professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

Improvement in post secondary education will require converting teaching from a solo sport to a community based research activity.

Herbert Simon

OLI believes this insight from Simon is critical when thinking about the future of education.  Read more about how we implement this key idea.

Our Key Goals

  • Support better learning and instruction with high-quality, scientifically-based, classroom-tested online courses and materials. Our courses are designed based on learning science research and, in turn, contribute to that research.
  • Share our courses and materials openly and freely so that anyone can learn. Our courses are often used by colleges and universities to support classroom instruction, but they are designed to support the individual learner who does not have the benefit of an instructor.
  • Develop a community of use, research, and development to allow for the continuous evaluation, improvement, and growth of courses and course materials. OLI is active in the Open Educational Resources community. We attend and present at related conferences, publish our research findings, and collaborate with many like-minded organizations, in addition to actively working with educators from a variety of institutions to develop new courses.

Who Benefits From Using OLI?

Our courses provide a number of features that benefit students, instructors, and academic institutions.


  • Immediate feedback helps students assess their own learning and study effectively.
  • All courses are free to independent learners and most are free to academic students.
  • Secure log-in allows students to easily return to where they last left off in their course.


  • Course materials are based on leading-edge research.
  • Educators get timely, targeted feedback about their students’ progress; and automatic grading.
  • Educators may join course evaluation studies, projects, and development teams.


  • Our platform can benefit all types and sizes of institutions.
  • Using data on student performance, OLI can improve educational outcomes and completion rates.
  • Institutions that work with OLI build relationships with leading-edge research groups, organizations, and partners.

Data-Driven Design

Student learning data provides feedback to help learning scientists, instructors, course designers, and ultimately the students themselves.

The most powerful feature of web-based instruction is that it allows us to embed assessment into every instructional activity. With the students’ permission, we collect real-time data of student-use in those activities.

This data makes possible the corrections, suggestions, and cues that are tailored to the individual students’ current performance and gives educators have an unprecedented opportunity to stay in tune with many aspects of their students’ learning. The data also benefits our course designers and learning science researchers:


Student activity data informs course designers about how students use the course material and how they perform on learning activities. Course designers use this data to iteratively refine our courses. For example, if many students are not performing well on assessments of a particular concept, course designers will review the explanation of that concept, the practice activities, and the self-assessments to see where they might make an improvement.


Some OLI courses also serve as part of the research environment for the Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center (PSLC). Learning researchers affiliated with the PSLC can embed experimental manipulations in OLI courses to test specific learning theories.