How to go to M.I.T. for free
Online 'intellectual philanthropy' attracts students from every nation on earth.
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Younes Attaourti, a physics professor in Marrakesh, Morocco, stumbled upon MIT's OCW site while surfing the Net. He's used the materials as the basis for courses he's taught on statistical physics and quantum theory of fields. And for his own learning, he's downloaded theoretical physics courses and one on ultrafast optics. "I don't think there is another university elsewhere in the world that is more generous," he writes in an e-mail: "[T]his is the first time that many people around the world are able to have access to top-quality courses."Skip to next paragraph
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Phillipa Williams is an adult (40-something) student at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, studying mathematics ("don't groan, I love it!" she writes in an e-mail). She's worked her way through many of the OCW undergraduate mathematics courses, she says, because they provide "a different viewpoint, another explanation of material," as well as different practice questions.
MIT's OCW website features even more glowing feedback from learners. "[B]ecause of money, many good students with great talent and [who are] diligent do not have the chance to learn the newest knowledge and understanding of the universe," says Chen Zhiying, a student in the People's Republic of China. "But now, due to the OCW, the knowledge will spread to more and more people, and it will benefit the whole [world of] human-beings."
"The MIT OCW program is a generous and far-sighted initiative that will do more to change the world for the better than a thousand Iraq-style invasions," the MIT site quotes Leigh Pascoe, a self-learner in Paris, as saying. "It does much to restore my faith in the enlightenment of the American people and their great experiment in democracy. This program should be emulated by every university worthy of the name."
Besides MIT, Tufts, and Johns Hopkins, the OCW consortium (ocwconsor tium.org) in the United States includes among its members Michigan State, Michigan, Notre Dame, and Utah State. Internationally, members include groups of universities in China, Japan, and Spain.
So far MIT has published 1,550 of its courses for OCW and plans to get the rest online by the end of this year. The materials for each course vary. Full videos of lectures, one of the most popular features, are available for only 26 courses, about 1,000 hours of video in all. "We'd like to do more video because it's really quite popular and our users love it," Marguiles says. "But it's quite expensive." The program relies on "generous support" from foundations, individuals, and MIT itself for funding, she says.
Schools like Tufts and Johns Hopkins were able to jump-start their OCW programs quickly because the schools had already committed themselves for many years to putting all their classroom materials online for use by their own students. The biggest job has been to vet the materials for copyright issues, so-called "copyright scrubbing," Lee and Yager say. If permission cannot be obtained for a specific photo or chart, it must be left out of the OCW version or a substitute found.
The OCW effort is part of a wide range of dynamic educational content emerging on the Internet, says Dan Colman, associate dean and director of Stanford University's continuing studies program and host of the website oculture.com, which highlights what's happening in Web-based education, with an emphasis on podcasts.
Full-fledged online courses "might eventually offer a viable alternative to the classroom, but right now we have a ways to go," he writes via e-mail. Podcasts, for example, let learners hear a lecture, but they don't require that the listener write a critical essay or take part in a classroom discussion – activities that are a key element of the learning process, Mr. Colman says.
And technology still needs to advance a bit more too. "We'll need a very fast fiber network and communication tools that give courses a greater degree of immediacy and sociability before this [online] model will become a real option educationally and economically," he says. "In the meantime, the traditional classroom is fairly safe."
For example, lab work, which usually requires close hands-on collaboration between an instructor and students, remains problematic online, Yager points out.
The losers in putting free content online aren't likely to be universities, which will continue to attract young students, Colman says. But free podcasts and OCW courses may pull adult learners away from other leisure activities, he says, such as reading books, watching educational television shows, or buying recordings of books or lectures. "All of these entities could suffer as users find free high-quality information on the Web," Colman says.