Boston Globe - MIT for Free? Now Anyone Can Access the World's Premier Technology University
By Terry Byrne -
With the click of a mouse, MIT's entire course catalog can be at your fingertips for free. By the end of this year, everyone with an interest can log on to OpenCourseWare (firstname.lastname@example.org) and get class notes from 1,800 classes, lectures from Nobel prize-winning professors, and access to one of the world's most respected scientific universities, even if their SAT scores don't qualify for admission. What's going on?
"It's hard to convey exactly what it is because it's a new model," says Steve Carson, external relations director for OpenCourseWare at MIT. "It's really all about making material available as a resource. We're not offering the classes for free, and you can't get credit for taking a class - there's no feedback or contact with faculty - but what you do have is access to information." <,p>
Still, with 40 full textbooks buried in the site, video lectures, charts, and graphs, courses like Linear Algebra, Physics I, and Principles of Macroeconomics can be sampled or dug into by anyone with a bit of curiosity and some time.
"At first we thought it would be mostly a site for educators, who could reuse some of the materials in their own classrooms," says Carson, "but we're finding the materials support a surprising number of independent learners, who are not the same as distance learners."
Distance learners are the huge market of students driving online education, says Barbara Macaulay, chief academic officer at UMassOnline, who notes that MIT's new site differs greatly from what her program and other online programs offer.
"OpenCourseWare is really about the presentation of content, which is great," Macaulay says. "But online courses from UMass and other schools are instructor led, offered for credits that can be put toward a degree, and include course requirements (papers, exams, etc.)."
"UMassOnline currently offers 66 programs," Macaulay adds, "and we're finding it's probably the fastest growing segment of the higher education market. It appeals to people at a distance from a campus first, but a huge group of students are working professionals who need to advance themselves but also need the flexibility of not having to go to a campus."
Access to a campus has also been the motivation behind MIT's program.
According to Carson, 32 percent of the people using OpenCourseWare are students supplementing material from their own classes or planning what courses they want to take based on an introduction to the material. Another 18 percent, he says, are educators learning more about their own field. "Many others are professionals using the material in the context of a problem they're trying to solve on the job," notes Carson. "Most recently, we had a group of naval engineers who were working on a project to make the canopies on the airplane cockpit that won't fracture. They were able to use the online information to help." But most compelling for Carson is the amount of international interest in the material.
"The level of traffic from the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa is amazing," he says. "We have now made 100 copies of the site available on university campuses, because in many of these countries, connectivity to the internet is difficult."
But neither Carson nor Macaulay believes OpenCourseWare will compete with online programs at other universities.
"OpenCourseWare fills a different need from distance learning," says Carson. "Although we have more than 100 universities following our lead and offering material online, getting a certificate and allowing access to knowledge are two different issues. I think the two can complement each other."