MIT's OpenCourseWare project sets an example for higher education

Six years ago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had a very bold vision: To share course materials from all MIT classes with the Web-connected public. This dovetailed with MIT's mission to "advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship to best serve the nation and the world."

The project was called OpenCourseWare, and it was launched at a very difficult time. There was a lot of gloom and doubt following the bursting of the late '90s tech bubble, and other high-profile Web-based educational projects -- such as Fathom (started by Columbia and a dozen other institutes) and Virtual Temple -- were on the ropes.

But MIT went ahead with OCW, and has grown the site in unexpected ways. The original plan (as it was described to the public) mostly involved sharing syllabi and other textual information, such as exam questions. OCW now includes videos and animations for some classes. It also has foreign-language materials in Chinese, Portguese, Spanish, and Thai, and has posted courses from 160 other universities around the world. In addition, MIT has just announced that all 1,800 undergraduate and graduate courses are online. The following video describes the announcement and some of the commentary about OCW:

One of the most interesting facets of this project is the cost. According to MIT, OCW has cost $29 million, not the $100 million that was originally projected. Funding comes from MIT, several private foundations, private companies, and indiduals who have either benefitted from the materials or see the value in having them freely available on the Web.

I hope the news will prompt other institutes of higher learning to consider how they might share educational resources online for the greater good. The University of California at Berkeley has uploaded class video to YouTube, and many schools now post audio lectures in iTunes to be downloaded as podcasts. But a lot of work remains to be done, particularly in the area of sharing research. It's amazing to me that almost all of the research and analysis taking place in colleges and universities today ends up as droplets of ink arranged on sheets of paper, intended for an audience of one -- a professor responsible for issuing grades. A much smaller subset ends up in printed books or journal articles, but almost none of it is shared with the Web-connected world. Most of the research is already created in digital formats such as Word documents, PDFs, and database tables. Organizing and sharing this data over the Web would involve a great deal of planning and coordination, but its not a stretch to imagine existing tools and infrastructure being reworked to accomodate this need, and serving the greater good.  

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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