MIT digitizes its courses, throws them online

MIT completes five-year OpenCourseWare project

MIT this week announced an important digital achievement: the completion of its pioneering OpenCourseWare project. And everyone involved seems quite happy with being unsure about why exactly it's important.

The achievement is digitizing all the classroom materials for all of MIT's 1,800 academic courses, putting them online, and inviting anyone and everyone to do whatever they want with that information. It's called the OCW project, and it's spawning a global movement to make what had been jealously guarded education resources accessible to educators and learners everywhere.

You can find the outline of a course in fundamentals in data networking, with a syllabus and lecture notes. There's a PowerPoint presentation from 2006 on "Trends in RFID Sensing".

Proposed in 2000 by a faculty committee, announced in 2001, and launched in 2002, OCW has received US$29 million in funding, US$5 million from MIT, the rest from foundations and contributors. One key backer, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, has decided on investing another US$100 million over five years in various open education projects largely because of its experience with OCW, according to Marshall Smith, director of the foundation's education program.

MIT has taken a step in doing something more with OCW. As part of Wednesday's celebration on the MIT campus in Massachusetts, University President Susan Hockfield announced a new portal for OCW, one designed specifically for high school teachers and students. Dubbed "Highlights for High School," the portal's home page selectively targets MIT's introductory science, engineering, technology and math courses, with lecturer's notes, reading lists, exams and other classroom information. The OCW resources, including video-taped labs, simulations, assignments and other hands-on material, have been categorized to match up with the requirements of high school Advanced Placement studies.

It's that "letting them do whatever they want" part that creates the uncertainty about why OCW is important. The data on usage are impressive. In the five years since the launch of OCW, with a 50-course pilot site, an estimated 35 million individuals have logged in. About 15% are educators, 30% are students, and the rest are what MIT calls "self learners" with no identifiable education affiliation, says Steve Carson, OCW's external relations director.

The recently formed OpenCourseWare Consortium has 160 member institutions, creating and sharing their own sites, on the MIT model. Something like 5,000 non-MIT courses are now available globally, some but not all using material from the OCW Web site.

Yet, one of the most striking statistics is from a completely unexpected source: iTunes, Apple's Web site for music and videos. MIT President Hockfield said she was told in September by her daughter to check out the iTunes list of most-popular videos. To her astonishment, Hockfield found two OCW videos in the top-10 listing. "No. 3 was 'classical mechanics,' she said. "No. 7 was 'differential equations.' Go figure."

"This expresses, to me, the hunger in this world for learning, and for good learning materials," she told her audience.

A distinguished group of speakers and panelists at the MIT event all agreed that OCW represents...well, something.

"We're unlocking a treasure trove of materials," said Steve Lerman, MIT's dean for graduate students, and chairman of the OCW Faculty Advisory Committee.

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