MIT Launches OpenCourseWare Initiative on the Web

By Wiggins, Richard W. | Information Today, June 2001 | Go to article overview

MIT Launches OpenCourseWare Initiative on the Web

Wiggins, Richard W., Information Today

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently 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

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 would 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 said: "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 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. …

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MIT Launches OpenCourseWare Initiative on the Web


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