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MIT's double-secret hidden agenda

By Lisa Currin / May 2004

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"It was only a matter of time," the skeptics will say. "We just knew this was just a publicity-seeking stunt and that eventually MIT would tip its hand. They're not seriously going to just give away all of their courseware over the Internet!" Well, the truth is finally out: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology does have a hidden agenda.

"Publicizing all of MIT's course materials on the Web is only half our mission," admits MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) program director Anne Margulies. "The other half is to do it in a way that enables others to follow in our footsteps. If we're the only ones publishing all our course materials, we will have failed. Our ultimate goal is to start an open knowledge movement that will put a vast amount of educational material on the Web—not just MIT materials."

Aha! So giving away priceless educational resources isn't all they're after—those crafty professors and administrators at MIT are out to start a movement!

Okay, so it doesn't sound like such a devious plot after all, but Margulies says she's used to having the OCW idea greeted with suspicion.

"I go through the whole story, and people go, `Okay, I get that, but why is MIT really doing this?'" she laughs. "It truly is intellectual philanthropy."

In the beginning

OCW did grow out of a more traditional money-making mindset. Shigeru Miyagawa, linguistics and Japanese professor at MIT, was one of the faculty members involved from the start. "In the summer of 2000, the school hired a consulting firm and formed a Council on Educational Technology to see if we could come up with a viable business plan for e-learning at MIT," he says. "As we explored different models and spoke to people around the country who were already engaged in e-learning enterprises, it became apparent to us that e-learning as a business was a very difficult proposition."

Simultaneously, the committee spoke to dozens of faculty members and found that many were already engaged in some sort of Web-based education within the context of their face-to-face classes.

"The professors were creating Web-based teaching materials to enhance their classroom teaching," says Miyagawa. "They weren't being paid to do it, and in fact, it was coming out of their family time, but they were committed enough to their teaching that many of them had undertaken some very ambitious Web-based teaching materials."

"Finally," Margulies says, "someone on the committee said, `Hey, wait a minute. Our mission is to advance education and serve the world—not to make money. Why don't we just give our materials away?'"

And so a great idea was born.

The power of one great idea

The Website officially went live in Sept. 2002, with a pilot that featured just 50 courses, giving administrators a chance to work the bugs out on a small scale.

On Sept. 30, 2003, MIT announced that materials for 500 of its courses from all 33 of its academic disciplines were now available on the OCW Web site. Syllabi, lecture notes, and calendars are available for all of those courses. In addition, most course sites include a subset of other materials, such as multimedia simulations, problem sets and solutions, past exams, reading lists, sample MIT student projects, and video lectures.

MIT is well on the way toward its goal of publishing materials from virtually all of its 2,000 courses by 2007. And the world is beating an e-path to its door. In the first seven months of operation, the OCW site received nearly 100 million hits from 85,000 unique users.

"We've been accused by other institutions of doing this as a big publicity grab," says Jon Paul Potts, OCW communications manager. "But when you read through the e-mails we get from people, you realize this is something real, not a publicity stunt. For example, we got an e-mail from a guy in rural Kentucky who's home-schooling his children. He's 225 miles from the closest library, and all of a sudden he has access to all sorts of material that he would never have had otherwise. This program is making a remarkable difference in people's lives."

In fact, MIT has received more than 10,000 e-mails from around the world since opening the doors to OCW. The idea that an institution with the reputation and brainpower of MIT would freely share its assets with the world has clearly touched a nerve. One e-mailer from Chile sums up the general consensus: "Although I'm not religious the first expression I could think of is: God bless OCW. First time in my life that I KNOW I have the resources to learn. The world is a better place to live because of MIT. Who knows, you may find another Einstein."

OCW in the field

Professor Naswil Idris is another of the OCW true believers. An Indonesian native who earned two graduate degrees from Stanford University, Idris now teaches communications at four different universities in Indonesia, including the Indonesian Open Learning University. He first became acquainted with the OCW premise at the 2001 Pacific Telecommunications Council Conference, and is now a full-fledged OCW evangelist, preaching the gospel of open knowledge to peers throughout Indonesia.

"Our textbooks are outdated, and we need to have more recent technology, more recent scientific data," he says. "Even if we buy new textbooks, it can take months for them to get here, so they're already out of date when they arrive. The Ministry of Education in Jakarta recommends—especially in subject matters such as computer science and medical sciences—that we should learn the latest knowledge from other countries. We cannot just learn from the old books."

"Right now, we are just in the first stage of using the OCW materials," Idris continues. "I am in the process of promoting it to other professors, and campaigning to my students." Idris says that Indonesia needs the help that a program like OCW can provide in order to compete in the Southeast Asian—and ultimately global—economy.

Halfway across the world, business people in the Ukraine are struggling to build a viable market economy out of the ruins of Soviet-style socialism. Ludmila Matiash, a Cleveland-born management consultant whose parents emigrated from the Ukraine to the U.S., went back to the Ukraine with the Peace Corps initially, stayed on for a job with the World Bank, and now works as editor of The Internet Project "Management: Methodology and Practice," a Web site dedicated to organizational transformation.

"Ukraine's market economy is only about 10 years old and business management is a new concept, a new mentality," she says. "We soon realized that our Web project was not only an information database but also a change tool; it can help formulate new thinking about business and management."

Matiash says the project is raising business issues—such as ethics, power, leadership and responsibility—that weren't part of the old Ukrainian business landscape. She uses OCW courses such as "Literature, Ethics and Authority" to bring up these topics in an interdisciplinary way. One of Matiash's colleagues, a Fulbright scholar in the U.S., has agreed to lead an Internet discussion around these themes in the Ukranian language.

"We're not educators, but as management consultants we have to educate our clients to work with new tools in new paradigms," she says. "We think that well-moderated discussion groups can work like learning communities to engage different stakeholders and to define a standard for business."

MIT's mission to generate a cascade of open knowledge began with a trickle when Vietnam's Fulbright Economics Teaching Program (FETP), a joint American-Vietnamese graduate school for Vietnamese professionals concentrating on economics and public policy, launched its own OpenCourseWare site. With a home page that notes its program was "inspired by" the MIT model, FETP may be the first imitator, but certainly won't be the last. Margulies says her office has received many inquiries from other institutions considering their own OCW offerings.

MIT isn't just sharing its courseware with all comers—it's also committed to sharing its methods with anyone who asks.

"We want to make sure we capture all our lessons learned and inspire others to do the same," says Potts. "Although we are about content, this project is truly in the spirit of open source.

Taming the intellectual property monster

While everybody we talked with at MIT gushed about how personally rewarding it's been to be part of the OCW initiative, nobody downplayed the challenges of the endeavor—the logistics have been complex.

"Intellectual property," is the universal answer to the question, "What has been the hardest part about getting this program launched?"

Professors develop their courses through years of culling material from numerous sources—a chapter from this textbook, a video clip from that movie, a couple of paragraphs from a prize-winning novel. But uses that don't raise copyright issues in the classroom are a different story when you're putting the material online for the whole world to use. Margulies has a full-time staff of three whose sole job it is to track down where course material came from, find out who owns it, and get permission to use it.

Another challenge has been finding a way to safeguard professors' own creations. "For the faculty, this has been a bit of a gamble," says Potts. "They're taking their life's work and posting it on a free and open Web site for everyone to use," instead of reserving it for the textbooks many of them will write. Faculty members who participate in OCW grant the program non-exclusive perpetual rights to their work. That means the OCW program can publish it forever, but the professors still have the right to use it or sell it in any other format they wish.

Getting faculty buy-in

"We discovered when we started this that the MIT faculty are very much committed to teaching, and they are willing to share this material," says Miyagawa. "That spirit of sharing isn't new—we have always shared material with colleagues at other universities. What OCW does is increase by several magnitudes our ability to share our material, and I think that idea has really resonated with the faculty."

Participation in OCW is completely voluntary. While MIT's stated goal is to have virtually all of its courses online by 2007, any professor who chooses to can opt out of the program. But few seem inclined to make that choice.

Some, like Miyagawa, even report that participating in OCW is changing the way they teach. "Professor John Dower and I created a course called Visualizing Cultures, which looks at history not from text, but from visuals that have been passed down to us—prints, lithographs, old photographs, and so on. We created the course with the OCW site in mind, because this type of thing really lends itself to the Web. But some interesting things have happened. In negotiating with museums about using their materials on the Web, we point out to them that they'll get tremendous exposure they would not otherwise get. That's very important to them. As a result, we've been able to attract some very desirable partners from the museum world. That wouldn't have happened without OCW."

As an interesting aside, Miyagawa and Dower were approached to build a traveling exhibit based on their Visualizing Cultures course. In an odd turn of events, a Web creation has now become a physical exhibition.

Professor Richard Larson is another faculty member who has embraced the OCW concept. His Logistical and Transportation Planning Methods, taught in partnership with professors Arnold Barnett and Amedeo Odoni, employs Urban Operations Research in pursuit of "the science of better." The course, which looks at the complex operating systems at work in any city—from mail delivery to sewage management—is ranked #9 among all OCW courses.

Larson, who says he gets e-mails from people using his course materials around the world, is currently working with his peers to create a self-sustaining global learning community built around the OCW course. The idea is elegant in its simplicity: create an online forum where practitioners, professors, and students can ask questions and share solutions.

"Since OCW is a no-feedback publication service only," he explains, "we're thinking if we can get a doughnut of people around the world who are interested and involved in this, they can work together in collaborative ways on problems of mutual interest."

As a member of the Learning International Networks Consortium (LINC), a group of professionals focused on helping developing countries enhance their use of technology, Larson says, "We see this effort as one of a small number of pilot efforts that we're making to see how we can leverage technology to help developing countries.

To ensure OCW stability of access in even the most remote parts of the world, MIT partnered with Akamai, which has built a network of thousands of servers scattered along the "edge" of the Internet. When a user logs on to the OCW site, she's actually pulling content from a local server. The design ensures a robust network—and 99.9% availability.

The payoff

"I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction out of knowing that we're having some positive impact," says Larson. "That's what being a faculty member is all about: you contribute knowledge to the world through original research and through organizing educational knowledge in a way that's uniquely your own. We can reach maybe 10,000 students on the MIT campus—that's a miniscule percentage of the people who might benefit from these materials."

"From the beginning, we were interested in the building this on the spirit of open source," says Miyagawa. "We wanted to create this new world where academic institutions would freely share their teaching materials with everyone; where we would integrate someone else's materials into ours and vice versa—sort of build a whole new knowledge structure that would be available to anyone who's interested in tapping in. That's the leadership role we thought MIT could play."


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