Classes at M.I.T., on the Web and Free [Every M.I.T. course will be online,
Page Announcement Keywords: MIT, WEB TECHNOLOGY, DISTANCE LEARNING
Source: The NY Times
Published: April 4, 2001 Author: Carey Goldberg
Posted on 04/03/2001 20:07:13 PDT by summer
at M.I.T., on the Web and Free By CAREY GOLDBERG, April 4, 2001.
CAMBRIDGE, Mass., April 3 — Other universities may be striving to market
their courses to the Internet masses in hopes of dot-com wealth. But the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology has chosen the opposite path: to post
virtually all its course materials on the Web, free to everybody.
M.I.T. plans on Wednesday to announce a 10-year initiative, apparently the
biggest of its kind, that intends to create public Web sites for almost all of
its 2,000 courses and to post materials like lecture notes, problem sets,
syllabuses, exams, simulations, even video lectures. Professors' participation
will be voluntary, but the university is committing itself to post sites for all
its courses, at a cost of up to $100 million.
Visitors will not earn college credits.
The giveaway idea, President Charles M. Vest of M.I.T. said, came in a
"traditional Eureka moment" as the institute — like nearly every
other university — brainstormed and soul-searched about how best to take
advantage of the Internet.
Called OpenCourseWare, the initiative found broad resonance among the faculty
members, said Steven Lerman, the faculty chairman.
"Selling content for profit, or trying in some ways to commercialize one of
the core intellectual activities of the university," Professor Lerman said,
"seemed less attractive to people at a deep level than finding ways to
disseminate it as broadly as possible."
Universities have been flocking into "distance learning" — offering
courses online to off-campus paying students — and commercial ventures have
been investing tens of millions of dollars in the idea. But those ventures tend
to pick and choose among courses and professors, rather than trying to offer a
whole university in one swoop.
At the same time, on campus, universities have begun creating a great many
course Web sites. The University of California at Los Angeles creates a site for
every undergraduate course. But those are generally only for internal use, and
the M.I.T. initiative appears to dwarf even those internal programs.
"I think everybody else besides M.I.T. is in the position of being more
cautious," and watching to see what Internet strategy works best, said
David Brady, vice provost for learning technologies at Stanford University.
A software entrepreneur in Washington, D.C., Michael Saylor, pledged $100
million to create an online free university a year ago, but he would build it
from scratch, and the value of his stock has plummeted. M.I.T.'s plan differs
from Mr. Saylor's, President Vest said: "For one thing, it's going to
Another difference between the M.I.T. plan and other Internet initiatives is
that it makes no effort to offer full-fledged, for-credit courses online.
Rather, it will offer course materials as ingredients of learning that can then
be combined with teacher-student interaction somewhere else — or simply
explored by, say, professors in Chile or precocious high school students in
Still, is the institute worried that M.I.T. students will balk at paying about
$26,000 a year in tuition when they can get all their materials online?
"Absolutely not," Dr. Vest said. "Our central value is people and
the human experience of faculty working with students in classrooms and
laboratories, and students learning from each other, and the kind of intensive
environment we create in our residential university."
"I don't think we are giving away the direct value, by any means, that we
give to students," he said. "But I think we will help other
institutions around the world."
Most of the 940 or so faculty members support the plan, Professor Lerman and
others said, but some have reservations. Some argued that the institute would be
giving away a valuable asset that could be used to subsidize the residential
students. (The question of whether university knowledge can be turned into
online gold remains a big one, however; most firms that are trying it, Dr. Vest
said, have encountered "much rougher sailing" than expected.)
Other faculty skeptics questioned whether it would be a good use of professors'
time to labor over Web sites, and still others have questioned whether sub-par
Web sites might not end up reflecting badly on M.I.T.
Then there is the question of intellectual property, already a thorny one in
academia as the promise of Internet riches exacerbates the question of who owns
the electronic rights to a professor's lectures and research. Some professors,
Mr. Lerman said, may end up having two Web sites: one for internal use with,
say, large portions of a soon-to-be- published textbook, and one for external
But he and others said that issues of intellectual property had surfaced little
in the months of faculty discussion of the initiative. Rather, they said, a
willingness, even an eagerness, to share appeared to dominate.
"This is a natural fit to what the Web is really all about," Dr. Vest
said. "We've learned this lesson over and over again. You can't have tight,
closed-up systems. We've tried to open up software infrastructure in a variety
of ways and that's what unleashed the creativity of software developers; I think
the same thing can happen in education."
In fact, M.I.T. is a hotbed of the "open source" software movement;
and this new Internet initiative is based on a similar idea, said Hal Abelson, a
professor of computer science and engineering who is involved in both.
"Fundamentally, they proceed from the same ethic, which has to do with
sharing," Professor Abelson said. "In the Middle Ages people built
cathedrals, where the whole town would get together and make a thing that's
greater than any individual person could do and the society would kind of revel
in that. We don't do that as much anymore, but in a sense this is kind of like
building a cathedral."
The initiative is to begin with a two-year pilot program to put materials from
more than 500 courses on the Web, work to be done by a combination of
professional staff and teaching assistants. One of the advantages of the
initiative, M.I.T. officials said, will be that it will unite all the posted
courses in one electronic place, allowing students to see how they flow into
each other, to search the whole repository and to jump from one to the next when
they cross- reference each other.
Professor Abelson and others estimated that at most 20 percent of professors
already have substantive Web sites for their courses.
University officials said they were not worried that, with extensive course
materials posted online, students would be less likely to come to class. In
fact, the university's provost, Robert A. Brown, said, when course materials are
already posted, "it pushes the faculty in the direction of `How do I best
use the contact hours so that people learn?' which is clearly critical."
Over all, the vision for 10 years from now, Provost Brown said, was "a
world in which you'll find students able to search what will be huge
repositories of content" and "they'll be able to use content from many
places educationally, and we'll be using other people's as much as they'll be
Dr. Vest said he did not rule out the possibility that M.I.T. might seek to
develop profit-oriented Web programs in the future. But as for this initiative,
he said, he suspected its greatest impact might come overseas, among
institutions that cannot attract world-class faculty.
"I also suspect," he said, "in this country and throughout the
world, a lot of really bright, precocious high school students will find this a
great playground." And ultimately, he said, "there will probably be a
lot of uses that will really surprise us and that we can't really predict."