Unlocking knowledge

From OpenCourseWare to co-ops, area schools are taking their learning outside the classroom
By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  January 12, 2011

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Back in 2000, when Google was two years old and the all-for-naught panic over a worldwide Y2K meltdown had subsided, the MIT faculty had to answer two questions: how is the Internet going to change education? And what are we going to do about it?

Distance learning was about to take off, and there was money to be made. Some MIT professors were already in the habit of posting their course materials online so that students could access them informally. But when monetizing this practice became a possibility, people got concerned that the business model ran counter to the school's mission — a commitment to generate, disseminate, and preserve knowledge.

So they took a step back. "We said, 'Let's stop thinking about money," says Stephen Carson, the director of external affairs of MIT OpenCourseWare, "and start thinking about what we can do to create benefit.' " They asked themselves: what's the Internet good at? (Spreading information widely.) What's MIT good at? (The classroom experience.) The faculty drew up a 10-page report making a case for why the conventional distance-learning model wasn't the right route to take. On top of that report — a one-page memo with a bold statement: let's give everything away for free.

"It was terribly audacious," says Carson.

'Empowering minds'
Such was the birth of MIT OpenCourseWare, the Web-based publication of virtually all course content from the graduate and undergraduate subjects taught at MIT. The site now welcomes an average one million visitors per month with the tagline: "Unlocking knowledge, empowering minds. Free lecture notes, exams, and videos from MIT. No registration required." It's a system that means Kunle Adejumo, an engineering student at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Nigeria, can supplement and complement the materials and experience he's getting at his own school, which has limited resources and computer access.

It also means that any interested human can click on the course offerings — pick, say, "Problems of Philosophy" — and select whatever lecture topic might be of most interest. "The Problem of Evil" lecture notes include a thorough five-and-a-half page outline, which is straightforward, sense-making, and even entertaining ("If God exists, she'd be OOG," [omniscient, omnipotent, wholly good]). The individual lecture closes with questions to consider ("Is existence a perfection? Is it better to exist than to not exist?").

Of course, there's plenty of science and technology here, too: September's most popular courses included "Multivariable Calculus" (I won't try to summarize notes from lectures on Lagrange multipliers or parametric equations for lines and curves), "Circuits and Electronics," "Intro to Computer Science," and "Principles in Chemical Science." You can also click over to the Sloan School of Management and take a look at courses in managerial psychology and advanced stochastic practices.

You might think it'd be a difficult thing to convince a professor that their specially designed course should go online for all the world to see for free. According to Carson, it didn't end up being that tough a sell. Organizers started with a "proof-of-concept site," where the original faculty committee and some other enthusiastic professors posted their course materials. "We guaranteed them that they wouldn't be flooded with e-mails, that their students would still come to class," says Carson. "We demonstrated the benefits." Faculty members who got on board first were the best advocates, he explains, and the question eventually shifted from "Why would you?" to "Why haven't you?"

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