MIT digitizes its courses, throws them online, and asks ‘What now?”

MIT completes five-year OpenCourseWare project


MIT has finished digitizing course materials for all 1,800 university courses. And it’s all online, and free. So, what now?

MIT this week announced an important digital achievement: the completion of its pioneering OpenCourseWare project. And everyone involved seems quite happy with being unsure about why exactly it’s important.

The achievement is digitizing all the classroom materials for all of MIT’s 1,800 academic courses, putting them online, and inviting anyone and everyone to do whatever they want with that information. It’s called the OCW project, and it’s spawning a global movement to make what had been jealously guarded education resources accessible to educators and learners everywhere.

You can find the outline of a course in fundamentals in data networking, with a syllabus and lecture notes. There’s a PowerPoint presentation from 2006 on “Trends in RFID Sensing”.

Proposed in 2000 by a faculty committee, announced in 2001, and launched in 2002, OCW has received $29 million in funding, $5 million from MIT, the rest from foundations and contributors. One key backer, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, has decided on investing another $100 million over five years in various open education projects largely because of its experience with OCW, according to Marshall Smith, director of the foundation's education program.

MIT has taken a step in doing something more with OCW. As part of Wednesday’s celebration on the MIT campus in Cambridge, Mass., University President Susan Hockfield announced a new portal for OCW, one designed specifically for high school teachers and students. Dubbed “Highlights for High School,” the portal’s home page selectively targets MIT’s introductory science, engineering, technology and math courses, with lecturer’s notes, reading lists, exams and other classroom information. The OCW resources, including video-taped labs, simulations, assignments and other hands-on material, have been categorized to match up with the requirements of high school Advanced Placement studies.

It’s that “letting them do whatever they want” part that creates the uncertainty about why OCW is important. The data on usage are impressive. In the five years since the launch of OCW, with a 50-course pilot site, an estimated 35 million individuals have logged in. About 15% are educators, 30% are students, and the rest are what MIT calls “self learners” with no identifiable education affiliation, says Steve Carson, OCW’s external relations director.

The recently formed OpenCourseWare Consortium has 160 member institutions, creating and sharing their own sites, on the MIT model. Something like 5,000 non-MIT courses are now available globally, some but not all using material from the OCW Web site.

Yet, one of the most striking statistics is from a completely unexpected source: iTunes, Apple’s Web site for music and videos. MIT President Hockfield said she was told in September by her daughter to check out the iTunes list of most-popular videos. To her astonishment, Hockfield found two OCW videos in the top-10 listing. “No. 3 was ‘classical mechanics,’ she said. “No. 7 was ‘differential equations.’ Go figure.”

“This expresses, to me, the hunger in this world for learning, and for good learning materials,” she told her audience.

A distinguished group of speakers and panelists at the MIT event all agreed that OCW represents…well, something.

“We’re unlocking a treasure trove of materials,” said Steve Lerman, MIT’s dean for graduate students, and chairman of the OCW Faculty Advisory Committee.

OCW’s resources will factor large in plans by the government of India to create a massive expansion of educational resources, according to Sam Pitroda, chairman of the government’s Knowledge Commission, which is charged with making specific recommendations on how to spend the new $65 billion the government will invest in education over the next five years. The nation has over a half-billion people younger than 25, Pitroda says. Just one of a series of almost unimaginable goals is to increase the number of universities from 350 today to 1,500 in five years, he said.

Pitroda said the scale of such goals requires questioning basic assumptions about what education is and how it is accomplished. “We don’t have enough resources to train teachers and build an entire [traditional] infrastructure to support them,” he said. Hence, the commission’s interest in open projects like OCW, which hold the promise of a massive transfer not only of knowledge but of teaching approaches and learning structures that can be adapted to local requirements and cultures.

“Given this expansion, OCW plays a key role in these emerging experiments" in education, Pitroda said.

Former Xerox Chief Scientist John Seely Brown, sounding what for him is a recurring theme, said Web technologies in education are creating a new generation of tinkerers, who tinker with content online rather than nuts and bolts. This is the domain of mashups, of combining existing content from various sources and media to create new, often more complex creations, often in the context of a community of peers who share a common passion.

“Maybe the next stage for OCW is shifting from [a focus on] content to actions on or with the content,” he said. “We have the ability to bring back tinkering, which is the basis of our intuition. We get our intuitions from playing around with stuff.”

Their musing prompted further musings from the audience.

Someone wondered if the new technologies both inspiring and enabling OCW and other projects have rewired the brains of the next generation, so that entirely novel ways of teaching and learning are now needed. Another asked if these technologies were democratizing learning, didn’t that call into question the classic idea of the university as a “certifier” by its degree programs that a student has acquired a certain degree of knowledge. Still another wondered how OCW could be augmented by faculty from around the world while balancing a need for maintaining some criteria of excellence.

These and many other questions will have to be addressed as part of a developing global conversation about the “meta university,” suggested Charles Vest, MIT’s former president and an early and enthusiastic backer of OCW. This concept is an attempt to blend what Vest described as the “deeply human activities” of teaching and learning, with advances in information technology that are making possible new tools for those activities: vast digital archives, open digital publications such as the Public Library of Science, projects like the Sakai open source learning management system, and projects like MIT’s iLabs, which lets students around the world use the Internet to access automated lab equipment, run automated experiments, and analyze and share data.

“The emotion I feel right now is humility,” said Hal Abelson, professor of computer science and engineering at MIT, and founding director of Creative Commons, a non-profit that offers free tools for content creators to mark their online creative work with the freedoms and permissions they want the work to carry. “What OCW has led us to see is what we’re in something like ‘Education 1.0’ What comes next? We’re imagining the future.”

Learn more about this topic

Behind the scenes of MIT’s network


Web technologies reimagining, reforming higher education


MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW) site

OCW’s Hightlights for High School portal

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