MIT Discusses Online Courses

Faculty Raise Concerns About OpenCourseWare at Meeting

By Eun Lee


A number of issues related to MIT’s role in the future of web-based education were discussed at the faculty meeting on Wednesday.

The proposed OpenCourseWare@MIT initiative, led by Professor Steven R. Lerman ’72, Chair of the Faculty, and Professor Harold Abelson PhD ’73, garnered the most discussion.

Other issues raised during the meeting included a report on the implementation of the new humanities communication-intensive (CI) requirement for the Class of 2005 and a motion to implement changes to the Rules and Regulations of the Faculty, specifically regarding testing procedures in graduate subjects.

Faculty discuss OpenCourseWare

Faculty members voiced their opinions on the OpenCourseWare initiative, designed to put all of the graduate and undergraduate course content at MIT into a web-based format. Although faculty involvement would be voluntary, the majority of the material on the OCW web site would be open and available to the world at no cost.

Abelson described a two-year experiment, at the end of which material for 700 MIT courses would be available online. Examples of course materials that would be posted on the web include syllabi, student work, and other content controlled by faculty.

The estimated cost for a 10-year project to launch and maintain OpenCourseWare for approximately 2,000 courses is about $100 million.

The project would put MIT at the forefront of integrating educational technology with an on-campus education, as well as setting an example for other leading educational institutions worldwide.

“Nobody sees this as providing an MIT education elsewhere, but only as a model for what a top-flight institution constructs for its education programs,” Lerman said.

President Charles M. Vest uncharacteristically expressed a personal opinion on the issue during the discussion of the initiative.

“I think we’re in a kind of brief shining moment in general in that the World Wide Web is making information available to the world for free,” Vest said. “I would like to think that, for at least a brief period of time, we could be a leading source of higher education on the web.”

Vest cited MIT’s leading role and influence on higher education during the ’60s and ’70s, which he attributed to well-conceived structure and carrying out of educational initiatives.

“My view and hope of the Institute is that we can play a similar role today using the timescales and flexibility that the web makes available,” Vest said.

Other faculty members endorsed the measure. “I do believe that other universities will follow suit because we as educators undertake the same global endeavor,” said Professor Jacob K. White ’80.

Several faculty members, however, expressed concern about the proposal during the meeting. “We came away quite puzzled as to what the OCW would really achieve,” said Professor of Architecture William L. Porter PhD ’69.

Porter described the web-based resource as an “elaborate catalog” that could neither accurately represent MIT teaching to the world nor encourage dynamic use of web-based teaching.

Professor of Civil Engineering John Williams expressed concerns about the quality of the web-based resource and its reflection on MIT. “We’re trying to serve too many purposes. There is no chance of stability,” he said. “We’re going to give away our most valuable asset for what I consider to be a half-baked business plan.”

CI change

Another important issue discussed during Wednesday’s meeting was a report given by Professor Steven R. Hall ’80 on the implementation of the communication requirement, which will go into effect with the incoming undergraduate class of 2005.

The requirements will include four CI subjects with substantial instruction and practice in writing and speaking. Half of these subjects will be part of the HASS requirement, while the other half will come from a student’s degree program.

Hall addressed faculty concerns about enforcement and implementation issues of the new requirement.

“The first line of enforcement is not enforcement at all -- it’s advising,” he said.

The HASS communication subjects must be in place by the fall of 2001 for the class of 2005. Approximately 86 subjects have received approval by the Committee on Curricula, and the critical tasks required to implement the requirement have been established.