MIT's Bold Vision: Offering Its Course Materials Free Online Is Just the Beginning of MIT's Vision for the Future of Education. (Cover Story)

By Goral, Tim | Matrix: The Magazine for Leaders in Higher Education, June 2001 | Go to article overview

MIT's Bold Vision: Offering Its Course Materials Free Online Is Just the Beginning of MIT's Vision for the Future of Education. (Cover Story)


Goral, Tim, Matrix: The Magazine for Leaders in Higher Education


The word swept through the educational community like a brush fire when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced in April that it would make materials for nearly all its courses available on the Internet. Moreover, this "OpenCourseWare" would be free to anyone who wanted to access it, anywhere in the world.

The initial reaction of some was that MIT had lost its mind. Why was the 136-year-old institute apparently "giving away the store?"

The short answer is that MIT has not given away the store. The long answer is that OCW is just part of a broadreaching education technology initiative that will take MIT into the 21st century.

A Very Large Educational Experiment

"OpenCourseWare is not exactly what I had expected," said MIT President Charles Vest at a press conference announcing the project. "It is not what many people may have expected. But, it is typical of our faculty to come up with something as bold and innovative as this. When we established the Council on Educational Technology at MIT, we charged a subgroup with coming up with a project that reached beyond our campus classroom."

What the group came up with is an idea that is simple on its face, but far-reaching in its implications.

Before discussing what OCW is, it's instructive to talk about what it isn't. It isn't distance learning, as it is commonly perceived. There are no degrees or certifications awarded. It won't even allow users to interact with teachers.

"OpenCourseWare is not a project in educational innovation, per se," says Dick Yue, associate dean of engineering and professor of ocean engineering. "There is nothing in OCW that is very exciting in terms of innovation or pedagogical strategy. In fact, it's rather basic. It's more like a publishing project, but it gives MIT the mechanism to enter into a very large educational experiment."

Early press reports erroneously trumpeted that OCW would be like getting an MIT education without the degree. "My answer to that is, `Sure, if you are a genius and very clever, you might be able to," says Yue, who chaired the study group from which the OCW idea grew. "A precocious high school student can come and look at our freshman physics homework problems, but he won't have any teacher interaction or be able to send the work for grading," he notes. "But he can certainly learn from it. He can see what it takes to earn a bachelor's degree in material science from MIT."

The first course materials should be online by April. Nearly 2,000 courses will be posted during the next 10 years. The OCW Web site will be coherent in design but flexible enough to accommodate many different types of lectures, courses and seminars.

"We haven't decided yet what courses will be in the initial launch," says Harold Abelson, professor of electrical engineering and computer science. "In making the initial choices, we are looking for some information about how easy it will be to put up different courses in different formats. We're focusing on what kind of format we can sustain for all MIT courses. Eventually, there may be some courses that will include multimedia, but that won't be the standard we initially commit to."

That standard will be one of the distinguishing features of OCW. Like most schools MIT already has many of its courses online, but they are individual efforts and can be expensive. "OCW provides the opportunity for MIT to use modern information technology to enhance or enrich education in a major way," says Yue. "OCW gives MIT the reason to get everybody on board in a broad way--not just a few courses, but all the schools and all the courses; not just the younger, technically savvy faculty, but all faculty. It will bring them, in some sense, into the 21st century. OCW provides the rallying point and the funding to do that."

Origins

The Council on Educational Technology subgroup wasn't formed to develop the OpenCourseWare concept, but to understand the Internet environment and the possibility of distance learning. …

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