Internet as portal to ivory tower

In bold education gambit, MIT opts to put all courses online - and give free access.

With yearly tuition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology hovering around $26,000, Gila Reinstein has been understandably interested in the latest news to filter from this educational citadel by the Charles River.

Her son is a computer-science major here, and on Wednesday she heard the announcement: The college is planning to give everyone on the planet free access to all its course material - from lecture notes to problem sets - though the Internet.

Is her $26,000 now wasted?

"Frankly, no," says Ms. Reinstein of New Haven, Conn. "The physical reality of being in a community with eager minds and great teachers is what matters."

Indeed, MIT's $100 million gambit is not a bid to create an online university. There will be no instruction. Rather, it's a bold effort to begin to realize the Internet's potential as a Great Library of Alexandria for the 21st-century world - an unlimited and universally available storehouse for human knowledge. Universities nationwide have posted syllabi and homework on the Web for years, but the sheer volume of information in the MIT project is unprecedented. It's a significant addition to global research, experts agree, with other universities watching to see how the experiment fares.

If successful, it could not only bring massive amounts of top-quality educational information to the farthest reaches of the globe, but also change the daily schedules of students deciding whether to go to class every day.

"This is a great thing," says James Duderstadt, director of the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Millennium Project, which looks at the future of education. "MIT is taking a leadership role, and it may stimulate a number of other universities to ... put this stuff in the public domain."

The project will be quite an undertaking. Participation is voluntary, but every teacher at MIT will be pressed to provide the materials online for each of the institution's more than 2,000 courses.

School officials hope that the first courses with be posted late this fall or early next spring. The entire process is expected to take as many as 10 years.

A 'perfect marriage'

The project, called OpenCourseWare (OCW), hadn't been MIT's goal in the beginning. In fact, many educators and administrators had expected something different when a panel was created to look at how MIT could improve its presence on the Web.

"I assumed - and I think others assumed - that it would be a revenue-producing model," says MIT President Charles Vest. "This is much bigger. OCW is the perfect marriage of American higher education with the capabilities of the World Wide Web."

Which is not to say there's no place on the Web for full-fledged schools that charge tuition and teach classes, Dr. Vest adds. Quite the contrary. While MIT doesn't plan to be a big player in retail online education, its foray into OpenCourseWare can only boost Web-based distance learning, say he and others, by adding to the total number of resources available on the Net.

"They're developing a different model, but that model is complementary," says Pamela Pease, president of Jones International, the first fully online, accredited university. "The future lies in some convergence of all these things, and we have yet to figure out what that will be."

The impact of OpenCourseWare, however, will not be limited to cyberspace. Already, teachers here have begun to ponder what education will be when all the relevant materials are available at the click of a mouse.

Computer-science Prof. Hal Abelson says he thinks it will improve teaching by forcing professors to think: "What is it that I do with the time I spend with my students in class?"

Fewer classes, more frisbee?

But others see a different paradigm emerging as online education seeps into more and more universities. Teachers could pare down class time to get to the pith of the lesson - or students might just be more apt to play frisbee on the quad than attend a lecture that doesn't give them anything they can't download.

"It's going to be a way-of-life decision," says Dr. Pease. "You might go to face-to-face class once a week instead of three times."

The key concept, say those involved with OpenCourseWare, is openness. Everyone from high school teachers in India to the engineering professor down the hall can see inside each classroom and take ideas for their own study and instruction.

With something of this magnitude, though, there are concerns, both logistical and legal.

In recent years, questions about who owns material when it is published online - the professor or the university - have remained largely unresolved, and schools are still feeling their way.

"We would advise that they iron that out before putting anything up," says Mark Smith of the American Association of University Professors in Washington. "After the fact, these things aren't as easy to sort out."

Then there's the issue of cost - as much as $10 million a year. MIT's Vest is adamant that private philanthropy will cover the tab, though nothing has been settled.

But even if MIT finds an answer, the cost - and the huge collegewide effort - needed to maintain such a project might be too much for many universities.

"They are asking a lot of their faculty," says Gerald Heeger, president of the University of Maryland University College, which has an online-degree program.

For many professors here, though, the plan is seen as an opportunity. "While everyone had different takes on the details, what really excited people was the broader mission," says Steve Lerman, chairman of the faculty. "There are tremendous opportunities for good."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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