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How to go to M.I.T. for free

Online 'intellectual philanthropy' attracts students from every nation on earth.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 4, 2007



By the end of this year, the contents of all 1,800 courses taught at one of the world's most prestigious universities will be available online to anyone in the world, anywhere in the world. Learners won't have to register for the classes, and everyone is accepted.

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The cost? It's all free of charge.

The OpenCourseWare movement, begun at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2002 and now spread to some 120 other universities worldwide, aims to disperse knowledge far beyond the ivy-clad walls of elite campuses to anyone who has an Internet connection and a desire to learn.

Intended as an act of "intellectual philanthropy," OpenCourseWare (OCW) provides free access to course materials such as syllabi, video or audio lectures, notes, homework assignments, illustrations, and so on. So far, by giving away their content, the universities aren't discouraging students from enrolling as students. Instead, the online materials appear to be only whetting appetites for more.

"We believe strongly that education can be best advanced when knowledge is shared openly and freely," says Anne Margulies, executive director of the OCW program at MIT. "MIT is using the power of the Internet to give away all of the educational materials created here."

The MIT site (ocw.mit.edu), along with companion sites that translate the material into other languages, now average about 1.4 million visits per month from learners "in every single country on the planet," Ms. Margulies says. Those include Iraq, Darfur, "even Antarctica," she says. "We hear from [the online students] all the time with inspirational stories about how they are using these materials to change their lives. They're really, really motivated."

So-called "distance learning" over the Internet isn't new. Students have been able to pay for online courses at many institutions, either to receive credit or simply as a noncredit adult-learning experience. Many universities also offer free podcasts (audio or sometimes video material delivered via the Internet).

But the sheer volume and variety of the educational materials being released by MIT and its OCW collaborators is nothing less than stunning.

For example, each of the 29 courses that Tufts University in Medford, Mass., has put online so far is "literally the size of a textbook," says Mary Lee, associate provost and point person for the OCW effort there. The material provides much more than "a skeleton of a course," she says. Visitors to Tufts' OCW course on "Wildlife Medicine" call it is the most comprehensive website on that topic in the world, Dr. Lee says.

What OCW is not, its supporters agree, is a substitute for attending a university.

For one thing, OCW learners aren't able to receive feedback from a professor – or to discuss the course with fellow students. A college education is "really the total package of students interacting with other students, forming networks, interacting with faculty, and that whole environment of being associated with the school," says James Yager, a senior associate dean at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He oversees the OCW program there. His school of public health now offers nearly 40 of its most popular courses for free via OCW. The school's goal is to put 90 to 100 of its 200 or so core courses online within the next year or so. In November, learners from places such as Taiwan, Britain, Australia, Singapore, Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands logged some 80,000 page views of OCW course material, Dr. Yager says.

MIT's initiative began with the idea of giving faculty at other universities access to how professors at MIT approached teaching a subject. But after the OCW project went online, the school quickly realized it had two other huge constituencies: students at other colleges, who wanted to augment what they were learning, and "self learners," those not pursuing a formal education but interested in increasing their knowledge.

Along with course content, MIT also wanted to showcase its teaching methods. Many schools follow a traditional model, teaching the theory first, then allowing students to practice what they've learned. MIT has a "practice, theory, practice" way of teaching, Margulies says, that aims to get students engaged and energized immediately – before delving much into theory.

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