Go to MIT for free? WOO HOO!!!

Massachusetts Institute of Technology has launched MIT OpenCourseWare, “a free and open educational resource (OER) for educators, students, and self-learners around the world”” (MIT website). That’s right, anyone with an internet connection can access materials from MIT courses. I’m not talking about just a couple of canned PowerPoint presentations either, these are robust courses that have a syllabus, assignments, video and audio lectures, and study materials. Though you can’t get credit for taking these courses, and you don’t have access to the instructors, you can experience teachings from some of the greatest minds in the world. At last count 1,550 courses have been published. The plan is to have just about all of MIT’s undergraduate and graduate courses online by 2008.

What are the implications of this? In my opinion, this may be the single greatest initiative online education has witnessed. Granted, I am an idealist who truly believes that everything should be open source …including education. A world class education is no longer just for the privileged.

Not everyone shares my enthusiasm. I recently listened to a professor’s concerns about the effect this could have on her intellectual property. She feels that this may reduce the value of materials she develops. I understand her point, but I feel this is a bit shortsighted. If all course materials from all colleges are made freely available, think of the advances that could be made with this collective knowledge. Students, professors, and the general public would be able to sample new ideas and theories from leading minds at the click of a mouse. Synergies would be formed, debates would ensue, and discoveries would be made. Some may feel this has the potential to change the landscape of higher education. Would that be such a bad thing?

As a society, I feel there is far too much emphasis put on “checking the box” of getting a degree. There are a lot of people out there with a college degree who barely lifted a finger for the seven years of their undergraduate career. This initiative helps shift the focus from students attaining the tangible end result of receiving a diploma to students gaining knowledge. I wonder if this is the beginning of something big.

3 thoughts on “Go to MIT for free? WOO HOO!!!

  1. ‘She feels that this may reduce the value of materials she develops.’

    I know that is a legitimate concern, but it’s long been known that just having materials in a course doesn’t mean they are worth anything. And many free online sources of content are seen in the education community as being superior in quality to some published works. Even some blogs are gaining traction as being very high in value and quality. Or so I will keep saying until it becomes true for ours :)

    What this may really do is force professors to not rely on their position or school reputation to carry their courses.

    But – that does raise two issues I wonder about: quality control and cheating. Most people get this romantic view of open-source as some freedom fighter thing. Since they’ve never gone out and gotten involved in the open-source community, they don’t don’t know what it is really like (I honestly don’t know how involved Darren is or isn’t in the open-source community, so this is really just my general observations and not a swipe at Darren. Although we do occasional enjoy a hearty bicker. Or was that a silent snicker?) I would say that about 90% of the open-source code out there is worthless. Either because it wasn’t properly developed in the first place, or the original developer moved on to something else – and the program that they created their software on has been upgraded.

    This is happening with Moodle right now. Anything that was designed for Moodle 1.6 probably won’t work with 1.7 or 1.8. This happened to two modules I created (Skype Presence and Course Blogs). If the designer has moved on to something else, those 3rd party plug-ins aren’t maintained and won’t work anymore.

    Of course, most people are only familiar with a hand full of highly maintained open-source projects, and those are usually great. Those of us that have dug around beneath the glamorous surface of open-source see a different story. I still love and prefer open-source, but also know that the thought of open-source education can be scary.

    Another issue is cheating. How do you guarantee that current students didn’t actually already go through the class and get all of the answers before hand?

  2. If I remember correctly the project started in 2001, and had hundreds of courses available already in 2002… The target was to have all of the courses available this year (2007).

    But for many courses it’s just the lecture slides, which would require the lession audio to complement them. Also, things like assignments are often really useful only if you can get feedback from an expert when stuck.

    I think the real test is to actually try to complete a certain course just with the material on OCW. The idea is of course 100 % good, and most of the material is of high quality, but is it still a course? I’m doing a digital signal processing course myself, and while there is loads and loads of material on that in Connexions (cnx.org) and some in OCW, the material itself only takes me to the first step of the teaching-studying-learning pyramid…

    Edit: an analogy came to me after this: open material is like open source code. Getting it to run might require compiling it yourself etc. Using it might require paid support etc. The same with the material. Really understanding the material might require to have someone to go it through with. Someone to check your exercises and so on. This is the business layer of open source, the services themselves. That’s usually where the real value is. The same pretty much applies to the material. The teachers should learn to let go of the material, and start to embrace the fact that it’s the teaching (service) where the real value is :-)

  3. That’s a really good analogy. I think your last statement is especially powerful, and important. Of course, the material is where the money tends to be (when it’s published), so I think in conjunction with teachers learning this, the administrators need to be encouraged to value the teaching as much as, or even more than, the published material.

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