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COLUMN

MIT OpenCourseWare

Guest Column
W. Victoria Lee

September 30 marked the debut of the unprecedented MIT OpenCourseWare project on the Internet. At first, I did not believe that MIT was going to make course material available online to the world free of charge. After all, only a few weeks earlier I was talking with my recitation class about why the lecture videos have become certificate-guarded. What leads to the change? After having both read about the project in the newspapers and actually visited the Web site, I have come to understand the benefits that the project will bring, but I have also developed some doubts.

The project is intended to help people learn around the world, which, I have to say, is very generous and thoughtful on MIT’s part. Although renowned for its outstanding research, MIT is also known for the excellent quality of its education. Making its academic materials available to the public shows that MIT cares not only about the education of its students, but also about that of students all around the world. The notes, videos, and handouts posted on the site can benefit individuals who wish to learn more about a certain subject, instructors who wish to provide more learning materials for their students, eager high school pupils who feel that they are not learning well enough at their secondary schools, and even people who are unable to receive education in the traditional way. All of these are the project’s impact on the society, and these are great and laudable impacts. Just when I was about to give the computer monitor a high five to celebrate this ingenious endeavor to serve the world’s academic community, I came to a halt and asked, “They’re posting lecture videos, too?”

For a moment I was actually quite indignant. The math just does not add up when I think about the number of digits on my bursar bills it takes to get me a seat in the lecture hall while somebody else in another corner of the world is watching the same lecture for free. But of course, college experience is more than just classroom learning. Truly, there are things that simply cannot be replaced by the Internet; MIT’s atmosphere, research opportunities, excellent faculties, and plethora of resources, just to name a few. Not to forget that, as the project Web site indicates, “the most fundamental cornerstone of the learning process at MIT is the interaction between faculty and students in the classroom, and among students themselves on campus.” In addition, OpenCourseWare does not grant degrees or involve information exchange between the learner and the MIT faculty. Therefore, the project is not offering the entire MIT experience over the Internet.

Nevertheless, providing lecture videos somehow enters the gray region. Course materials and texts should not differ too much in similar classes among colleges, but it is the way these materials are incorporated and taught by the instructors that makes the course and even the college unique. In any case, being in the classroom is part of what constitutes the MIT experience. The lecture videos alone do not provide interactive learning per se, but along with other available course materials such as simulations, graphics, and tutorials, they do come pretty close to creating virtual learning environments. Sharing is a wonderful thing, but are we sharing too much? After all, many of us did decide to put on a heavy financial load on our shoulders because we believed that we would be listening to world-class lectures unique to MIT. This is also probably the reason that, for some classes lecture videos on the web now require certificates to access.

Clearly, OpenCourseWare, as the project’s fact sheet indicates, is not intended to be “a substitute for an MIT education” or even “a distance learning initiative.” At less academically rigorous colleges, MIT quality education will not even be remotely imitated with the aid of OpenCourseWare. But for those of us who were painfully vacillating between attending a top-notch public college with excellent faculty and attending MIT, how do we draw the line between attending the public school and paying much less, and attending the institution while whatever we might be missing at the public school can be filled in with the aid of the MIT OpenCourseWare?

I may be foolish. I may be selfish to even have these questions. But even with all my doubts, I raise both hands in favor of the project. But the bottom line is, most of us worked very hard to be here and most of our parents worked maybe even harder to send us here. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could keep not only the MIT experience, but also the lecture part of “the content of an MIT education” distinctively MIT?

W. Victoria Lee is a member of the Class of 2006.