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OpenCourseWare To Place Most Class Material on Internet

By Naveen Sunkavally


At a high-profile press conference Wednesday, MIT publicly announced its commitment to a ten-year plan to make material from nearly 2,000 courses freely available over the Internet.

OpenCourseWare, the project to put the material online, is expected to cost about $100 million and has the goal of providing lecture notes, course outlines, and assignments from 500 courses over the web within the next two years.

Chair of the Faculty Steven R. Lerman ’72 presented the project as a challenge to the “privatization of knowledge” and a way to encourage the world-wide dissemination of educational ideas.

Faculty participation in OpenCourseWare is completely voluntary, although most faculty are expected to go along with the project, said Dean for Undergraduate Education Robert P. Redwine.

What is the value of MIT?

A common question regarding OpenCourseWare concerns the effect the project will have on the value of an MIT education. If MIT is providing all of its course material online, some may question why students should pay to come to MIT.

Administrators and student leaders alike were optimistic that an MIT education could stand alone from the material in its courses, and that, if anything, the project would improve the value of MIT’s educational experience.

“OpenCourseWare is not going to stop students from coming to MIT,” said Undergraduate Association President Peter A. Shulman ’01. “It is no accident that when alumni look back at MIT they point to non-academic things, such as their dorms, FSILGs, relationships, and contacts.”

Lerman said that the MIT education also encompassed UROPs, advanced projects, and learning between students.

“I don’t know if OCW will make a difference. All it is is course notes ... it doesn’t devalue the education,” said Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Harold Abelson PhD ’73. Abelson said, however, that OCW will stimulate serious discussion about the type of education MIT provides and challenge faculty to think about why students should come to their class.

Chair of the UA Subcommittee on Advising and Faculty-Student Relations Jason H. Wasfy ’01, who organized an survey last month which brought to light possible problems in MIT’s undergraduate advising system, said that “OpenCourseWare is absolutely wonderful news for MIT students” because it will force MIT to give students a compelling reason to come here.

“I think [OCW] will put the issue [of advising] at the forefront. MIT can’t continue to have big lectures... there’s going to have to be dialogue,” Wasfy said.

“MIT now has to differentiate between a student paying tuition at MIT versus a student learning things on the web in Bangladesh,” Wasfy said.

Lerman agreed with Wasfy, and said that OCW will force MIT to address advising issues. He pointed to a subgroup of the Committee on the Undergraduate Program that is currently working on the problem.

Other possible concerns

Graduate Student Council President Soulaymane Kachani also applauded the OpenCourseWare project. “It is a wonderful commitment to improve higher education. ... These classes will be ambassadors for MIT,” he said.

Kachani, however, said that there must be minimum standards for the quality of material put online, and he expressed concern about the incentives faculty would have to participate in the project, especially if there were issues with intellectual property rights.

Kachani also said that OCW might deter students from becoming teaching assistants if TAs have to devote a substantial amount of time for the project. “The budget for the project might be too small,” he said.

Lerman said that a staff of professionals would be hired to help with the technical and production aspects of OCW, and that summer salary may also be provided for some faculty. “The key is to make it easy,” Lerman said.

Shulman said that he suspects faculty won’t have much of a choice and that participation in the project will probably come as a directive from President Vest.

Abelson said that he thinks there will be very few issues with intellectual property rights, and that faculty could always exclude sensitive information from the project.

Obtaining funds for OCW

One of the current roadblocks in getting the OCW project under way is attracting the $100 million in outside support. The Institute is seeking funding partners to cover the start-up and annual costs for the project.

At the press conference, President Charles M. Vest said that he expects MIT to have no problems finding private partners.

Abelson said that funding could come from a wide range of sources, including alumni and corporations.