Free Higher Education MIT’s OpenCourseWare Plan Fires the First Real Shot

Hal Plotkin, Special to SF Gate
Thursday, May 10, 2001

URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/gate/archive/2001/05/10/mit.DTL

In news that went largely overlooked a few weeks ago, MIT President Charles Vest announced that the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology plans to make the materials for nearly all of its courses freely available on the Internet over the next 10 years.

MIT’s decision is an enormous step forward on a path that will eventually bring higher education opportunities within reach of millions of people who now have scant hope of ever attending college.

History has shown that there aren’t many things government can do to raise overall standards of living more effectively than increasing general levels of education. Although there are exceptions, the relationship between income and college attendance is statistically indisputable.

The availability of top-level academic materials online will soon make it possible to bring the cost of a self-directed income-boosting college education down to just a few hundred dollars a year, or even less, within a decade.

As the old proverb says, “If you give a man a fish he has food for a day. But if you teach him how to fish, he has food for life.”

MIT’s OpenCourseWare initiative will give the whole world a chance to learn to fish.

Schools and other institutions will be free to use MIT’s academic materials, including any available classroom lectures or transcripts, without fear of violating copyright rules or other legal requirements. The materials will also be available to any self-directed learners who want to study outside a formal course of instruction.

Essentially, MIT is providing educational raw materials that others can fashion into new educational products. It’s similar to the way the open-source software movement provides a common set of technical resources that are freely available.

The open-source model on which MIT’s OpenCourseWare plan is based will help create a new educational eco-system where innovation will be enhanced through the sharing of online resources. The result will be a more dynamic educational structure that invites the type of participation required to keep educational materials about still-developing topics such as biology or computer science current and up to date.

MIT doesn’t presently plan to offer any special degrees as part of this initiative. But there is nothing to stop other schools from using those materials to augment their own degree-granting programs.

Students looking for a higher education entry point will find more options, including some that will turn today’s academic paper chase into a more authentic and potentially more valuable chase for knowledge. Motivated students will be freer to search out and use the best, most current learning resources rather than be stuck with whatever may be on the menu at their particular school. Augmenting the educational system in this way will be useful even when such studies don’t contribute to the certification process.

Education has value even when it is not accompanied by a formal degree. It could be something as simple as the bigger paychecks that are brought within reach when a person learns new skills, such as Java programming, electrical engineering, or computer graphics. Or it could be something more esoteric but equally valuable, such as the greater sophistication that grows out of a tutored exposure to art, or the lasting inspiration that flows from the ideas of giants such as Einstein or Jefferson or Proust.

MIT’s decision is a shot across the bow of those in the higher education establishment, including within the University of California system, who have been working to keep academic materials, including in-class lecture notes, off the Internet.

The fear, of course, is that colleges, universities and professors will lose control over their intellectual property if they make it freely available.

But thankfully, MIT’s more enlightened leaders see things differently.

“OpenCourseWare looks counter-intuitive in a market driven world,” MIT’s Vest said when he signed on to the new plan. “It goes against the grain of current material values. But it really is consistent with what I believe is the best about MIT. It expresses our belief in the way education can be advanced — by constantly widening access to information and by inspiring others to participate.”

Although it’s taking place years after the opportunity first presented itself, the school’s decision is sure to keep MIT in the forefront of science and technology education. MIT’s reputation and the desirability of a degree from the school will only be enhanced if the school’s curriculum and course materials become the de facto platform on which other schools base their programs.

Some scientists say that human beings have an innate desire to learn that is built into our biology, a part of our survival mechanism. This process will be accelerated if MIT’s example leads more schools to throw open their digital doors.

It’s likely that evolutionary forces will continue to slowly whittle away the elitism that characterizes too much of higher education today. Eventually, leaders at the most ambitious schools or other institutions will figure out the best ways to organize and exploit the Internet’s free academic resources. The learning instinct will attract people to those resources as surely as the thirsty are led to water.

But more support for those efforts, including figuring out which approaches to online education work best, could turn that slow evolutionary process into a far more rapid revolution.

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