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The global gamble
why is MIT offering its course materials online for free?

By Bridget Murray / August 2001

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When the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced in April that it plans to place materials for all its courses online at no cost, many were puzzled. At a time when most colleges and universities are trying to figure out how to make money on the Web—and when intellectual property concerns reign—why on earth would MIT give the goods away?

Those behind the initiative, called "OpenCourseWare," say that the motivation is mainly altruistic. They claim that their reason for putting everything from syllabi to study guides online is to share MIT's knowledge with the world. And they view the Web as the ideal vehicle for doing so.

"The real purpose of the Web is not about e-commerce," says Vijay Kumar, MIT's assistant provost and director of academic computing. "It's about making knowledge available extensively. When the Web was first initiated, people saw the educational promise it had, and this is a way of making that [promise] more real. We want to enhance the service aspect of the Internet."

The project offers professors and students in all corners of the world "a window to MIT course content," says Kumar, voicing the intent of OpenCourseWare's founding group, MIT's Council on Educational Technology. Those in third-world or rural areas will likely benefit the most, he believes.

Practical Motives

"Some analysts claim, however, that there is more to MIT's new project than just altruism. There are practical motives too, says Steven Lerman, chair of the MIT faculty and a professor of civil and environmental engineering. For example, publicity about MIT's innovation adds to its prestige and national recognition, he says. Outside observer Carol Twigg sees another benefit: The project is speeding up something the university is doing anyway to aid student/faculty communication, says Twigg, executive director of the Center for Academic Transformation at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

"Altruism is not the primary motivator," she says. "Faculty are supportive because they see a long-term benefit: Putting course materials online improves communication and logistical aspects of coursework. It's ultimately more efficient and beneficial to students…If you lose your exercise list, you can go get it right off the Web."

"But, motives aside, most seem to agree on one thing: MIT's very public move makes a strong statement about online education. While some faculty have balked at digitizing their materials for fear that they would give away their courses, MIT's move sends the opposite message: Course materials are no substitute for the course itself. "MIT is making a point that online education is not just a matter of putting up course materials," says Twigg. "Credentialing, credit, and teacher/student interactivity are what is valuable, not the materials."

"The MIT message will likely spur ripple effects across universities, many of whom currently put course materials online piecemeal, according to Twigg and others. Expect to see universities stepping up those efforts and working harder to reach faculty consensus on intellectual property.

Not Just Another DotCom U

If that happens, MIT may well spur a new evolutionary phase in online education. And it will have done so almost by accident. When the institution's Council on Educational Technology first began mulling MIT's role in e-learning, it explored the profit-making potential of online courses, just as other universities have done.

But the group ultimately decided against going DotCom. The reason? Members felt that "an open university culture" would clash with MIT's status as a premiere residential research university, says faculty chair Lerman. "Then, somewhere in the deliberations, someone had a different idea," Lerman adds. "Rather than making money, what if we took a page from the open source software book and put all our materials online?"

Administrators, "loved the idea," says Lerman. They weren't so sure how faculty would respond, though, and knew that gaining faculty support was crucial. That much had been made clear several years back at UCLA, where some faculty felt pushed into creating Web pages for undergraduate courses.

Courting Faculty, Clearing Hurdles

MIT avoided UCLA's mistake by launching a broad consensus-building effort among faculty. Several factors have helped the university secure faculty support, says Lerman. For one thing, project participation is voluntary, although MIT's hope is to win full involvement eventually. More importantly, perhaps, the university is offering major financial backing—$100 million—for the 10-year project to relieve faculty of the burden of development.

Even without all that funding support, the project would no doubt be easier to undertake at technical MIT—where many professors already post course materials online—than it would elsewhere, says Lev Gonick, chief technology officer at California State University at Monterey Bay. "There is a sense that this will not be a significant 'fork lifting' effort on the part of the MIT campus," Gonick says. "There's already a lot online there. Other universities would need a much bigger fork lift."

Still, some professors oppose the project, voicing several reservations. Topping the list is concern that universal Web pages may compromise intellectual property, says Lerman. In response, administrators have assured faculty that what they create, they own and can share as they please. But copyrighted material they don't own will need to be off limits to the public. "So professors will either need two different Web sites, or we'll need to restrict public access to some parts of the site," says Lerman.

Yet another design challenge is fitting a single Web format to different types of courses, says project spokesperson Patti Richards. "How do you make a format that is cohesive but flexible, but accommodates everything from an engineering lecture to humanities and architecture courses?" asks Richards.

Where the Value Is

That is for MIT to figure out. Meanwhile, other colleges and universities are trying to figure out what OpenCoureWare means for them. One effect may be that more universities—motivated by MIT's intellectual-property consensus—nail down their own policies, says Kenneth Green, director of the Campus Computing Project, a nationwide survey of technology use in higher education, based at Claremont Graduate University.

Another effect may be that more universities launch coordinated efforts to digitize course materials to stay competitive for students, alumni contributions, corporate services and the like, says Green. Or they may follow MIT's lead simply because they agree with the institution's philosophy that raw course materials alone do not make an online education, says Twigg of the RPI Center for Academic Transformation.

"The point is that the course materials themselves don't have much stand-alone value," Twigg says. "What does have value is having materials readily accessible to students."


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