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Why Not Hit the Beach?

Jason H. Wasfy

My first reaction to MIT’s OpenCourseWare project was one of pride. While some of our peer universities are trying to sell academic material for profit, MIT would post problem sets, handouts, and tests on the Internet for all to see, without charge. OpenCourseWare sets a wonderful example for the free exchange of information, and will allow people who wouldn’t otherwise dream of access to MIT course material (in particular, people in the developing world) to sample cutting-edge advances in science and engineering education. This project will reinforce MIT’s reputation as the finest science and engineering university in the world and renew MIT’s commitment to the greater social good.

But some students have been talking about another aspect of the OpenCourseWare project that I hadn’t initially realized. OpenCourseWare might be a disincentive to enroll as a regular student at MIT. Why should we pay $30,000 per year, some students reason, for information that MIT wants to give away for free?

Fact is, too often MIT classes consist of little more than those handouts, problem sets, and tests, without the discussion and dialogue that should play a role in college coursework. To be sure, many classes at the Institute are thoughtful and well-planned lectures that incorporate meaningful dialogue between students and faculty. But some -- particularly the big core science classes and intro-level departmental classes in which perhaps half the students don’t even bother to show up for lecture -- just don’t seem worth our hefty tuition bill when the course material is going to be free on the Web.

Actually, a student who doesn’t think MIT lectures are worth pulling himself out of bed in the morning might just reason that he should take a term off, hang out at the beach all term with a laptop, and follow the courses that he would have taken had he stayed at MIT. With a solid command of the material, he could return the next term to take placement exams to secure credit for those courses. That would mean satisfactory progress towards a degree, just as much knowledge from the courses, and a term free from tuition. So again, why pay tuition to take classes here?

But in the long run, OpenCourseWare is not nearly as bad as it may seem for MIT’s undergraduates. OpenCourseWare will force the faculty to reenergize the undergraduate curriculum, creating courses that are more thoughtful and more interactive. Over the next ten years, MIT is obligated to prove to us that classes here are worth $30,000 more per year than handouts and problem sets alone. Bob Brown, MIT’s provost, hinted at that obligation when he told The New York Times that OpenCourseWare “pushes the faculty in the direction of ‘How do I best use the contact hours so that people learn?’”

And as students, we need to hold the faculty to that obligation. If we do, courses here could become more engaging and more vibrant. If we don’t, MIT will just start giving away for free what we pay so much money to access. The ball is now in our court.

The argument that students here pay for other aspects of the MIT experience -- UROPs, learning and living with so many bright young people, the respect that an MIT degree brings -- is mostly true, but somewhat misleading. Enshrined in the 1998 Task Force Report on Student Life and Learning is the principle that classes make up one of the three equal pillars of an MIT undergraduate education, the others being community life and research. If classes indeed make up one of those three pillars, then at a minimum, the Institute needs to ensure that all classes are engaging enough to motivate students to show up. Students will show up only if the actual face time in class gives them something that the mere course materials -- those that will make up the OpenCourseWare project -- simply can’t.

In the MIT News Office release on OpenCourseWare, President Vest says that “Real education requires interaction, the interaction that is part of American teaching. We think that OpenCourseWare will make it possible for faculty here and elsewhere to concentrate even more on the actual process of teaching, on the interactions between faculty and students that are the real core of learning.”

Sounds good to me. I just hope that in 2011, after MIT has phased in OpenCourseWare, students here won’t have missed a great opportunity to push for the quality of classes that they deserve.