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MIT Launches OpenCourseWare Initiative on the Web
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Posted On April 23, 2001


This month, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced a sweeping 10-year initiative that will publish for open access on the Web materials that support virtually every course—some 2,000—taught at the university. Known as OpenCourseWare (OCW), the initiative would make "MIT course materials that are used in the teaching of almost all undergraduate and graduate subjects available on the Web, free of charge, to any user anywhere in the world." The announcement received page-one coverage in The New York Times and prominent play in media coverage worldwide. MIT itself continues to feature a link to OCW material on its home page at http://www.mit.edu.

MIT administrators expect that other universities will use MIT course materials to enhance their own curricula, particularly those in developing countries. Steven Lerman, a professor of civil engineering and chair of the faculty, said: "We hope our materials will be translated. Developing countries need information, and they need to develop infrastructure and institutions." MIT officials also hope that other universities will follow the MIT example, making their own course materials available for free on the Web.

As universities have rushed into Web-based instruction, both for support for on-campus classes and for Web-based delivery of classes for distance education, the instinct has been to conceal such materials behind passwords, firewalls, or Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). Universities have assumed that students wishing to receive college credit will be willing to pay the required tuition to unlock the course materials.

MIT is careful to distinguish OpenCourseWare from distance education. In a statement, MIT president Charles M. Vest stated: "Let me be clear: We are not providing an MIT education on the Web. We are providing our core materials that are the infrastructure that undergirds an MIT education. Real education requires interaction, the interaction that is part of American teaching."

During an interview on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," Vest said: "We are not putting entire courses up. We're putting the primary instructional materials from courses: very detailed course notes, outlines, syllabi, sets of problems, typical examinations—all the materials a teacher would use, but we're not doing the actual teaching of the course." Vest said that he did not expect the initiative to undercut interest in attending MIT or willingness to pay MIT's tuition rates.

Vest and MIT press releases cite overwhelmingly positive support from the faculty. Participation by individual faculty is voluntary, but the administration feels that the majority of faculty members will participate. Intellectual property rights have always been a serious concern for faculty at universities. At most institutions, faculty members retain intellectual property rights for books they publish based on their own research. Asked on "All Things Considered" if a new professor could publish a universally adopted text on economics, Vest said that course notes would probably be far less polished than a textbook. He noted that many authors find that putting components of a book on the Web for free access can enhance sales of the book.

The OCW initiative was the surprise product of a faculty committee. At first, MIT expected to leverage its course materials as a way of extending revenues. Vest chartered a Council on Educational Technology to establish a blueprint for MIT's use of technology in pedagogy on campus and beyond, expecting "something based on a revenue-producing model—a project or program that took into account the power of the Internet and its potential for new applications in education." Instead, a subgroup of the council, inspired by the Open Source movement, proposed an initiative to open up course-related materials for free global access.

MIT is launching a fundraising effort to pay for the initiative, with development costs in the first years of the project expected to be between $7.5 million and $10 million per year. The university hopes to begin OpenCourseWare publishing this fall.

Details were sketchy as to how course materials across MIT's various departments and programs would actually be organized on the Web. Search engines report a number of broken links to "opencourseware" pages at MIT. Google's cache retrieved a page from the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences showing a rather primitive prototype of an OCW site. One active page at http://www.mit.edu/afs/athena.mit.edu/org/o/ocw/lectures1.html showed an entirely predictable syllabus; links to supporting materials on this page were dead.

At least one MIT alumnus supports the move. Hal Varian is dean of the School of Information Management and Systems at the University of California-Berkeley, co-author of the acclaimed book Information Rules, and a 1969 graduate of MIT. He said: "I think that MIT, both as an institution and as a collection of individual professors, will make more money by opening their course sites than by trying to commercialize them. Why? It's that old adage: It pays to advertise. The more students, parents, and potential benefactors know about what you are doing, the more likely they are to contribute to the effort via tuition, grants, or gifts."

MIT cites faculty members who support the move. Mechanical engineering professor John Lienhard said: "Last year, I posted my undergraduate heat transfer textbook on the Web for no-charge distribution. It is a 700-page PDF file, fully hyperlinked, and also properly typeset. In the domestic book market, the cost for this book would be $85 for the hardback or $45 for the paperback. My aim, however, is to provide the knowledge to those who can't afford to buy the book. The book has been downloaded by users from around the globe. Those users include many professors and students at remote universities in the third world. But the book is also being downloaded by students at universities in the U.S. and engineers in domestic industry. So the reach of my e-book has been quite broad." Lienhard expects that the initiative "will allow MIT to expand its influence to students, teachers, and technical professionals, domestically and, especially, in less-developed nations."

Starting in 1996, Charles Severance taught some of the first Web-based distance education courses at Michigan State University. He sees OpenCourseWare as an important value statement: "MIT is telling the faculty ‘We understand that we cannot make money off raw course materials such as the handouts or lecture notes that are produced while teaching a class. We encourage you to be proud of your work and make it openly available rather than hiding it all behind passwords in the name of protecting some future revenue stream.' MIT's new policy is a statement of freedom and empowerment for the faculty."

Shigeru Miyagawa, professor of linguistics and Japanese culture, said: "OCW reflects the idea that, as scholars and teachers, we wish to share freely the knowledge we generate through our research and teaching. While MIT may be better known for our research, with OCW we wish to showcase the quality of our teaching."

Not all MIT professors are so sanguine. John R. Williams, professor of civil engineering, says that "feedback from other faculty and others has convinced me that the administration's response to the fundamental revolution in education that is being brought about by the Web is driven by the emotional ‘need' to make a ‘splash' rather than by a carefully thought out, rational response to improving education. Similarly the statement that 80 percent of the faculty have ‘signed up' cannot be taken literally—to date there is nothing to actually sign."

Williams worries that the subtle distinction between OCW materials, which support MIT courses, versus true distance education offerings, may be lost on the masses. He believes that by putting raw course-support materials on the Web alongside others' highly-polished, Web-based full-course offerings, MIT could actually harm its reputation. "People will compare the [MIT OpenCourseWare] Web pages with richer distance-education products offered by other universities and companies. Already people have contacted MIT asking to be enrolled in the free courses."

Some might question how radical a change OCW actually represents. AltaVista finds some 44 million pages in the .edu domain. Of these, 2.2 million pages contain the word "syllabus" or "syllabi." Some searching and browsing of various university Web sites reveals that many professors and universities already put a great deal of their course-related material on the Web for open access—at least materials related to classes taught on-campus to tuition-paying students. It may be that the greatest benefit of the MIT OpenCourseWare initiative will be the systematic organization of freely available course materials in a standardized, searchable archive, so that professors and curriculum developers worldwide can easily find out the details of what makes up the MIT curriculum.

How will the MIT initiative affect the distance education and virtual university communities? Jamey Fitzpatrick, vice president of development and education policy at the Michigan Virtual University (http://www.mivu.org), said: "There is a tendency to think in terms of courses being either all virtual or all traditional. I think increasingly courses exist somewhere in the middle. MIT is making a commitment to "Webify" or Web-enable traditionally taught courses. I think this is a win-win situation for the virtual education community as well as for traditional universities."

Fitzpatrick sees the MIT effort complementing and enhancing the work of other universities, both traditional and personal. But he thinks another group might take pause. "One group that must be eyeing the MIT OpenCourseWare announcement warily is publishers. In education, we expect to see more and more multimedia-rich content delivered over networks and viewed using mobile devices. It will become increasingly difficult to distinguish courseware that supports an MIT class from the textbooks. What will the role be for publishers in such a world?"


Richard W. Wiggins is an author and speaker who specializes in Internet topics.  He is a senior information technologist at the computer center at Michigan State University.

Email Richard W. Wiggins
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