No Net Profit:
MIT Courses Are Going Online (Free!)
universities may be striving to market their courses to
the Internet masses in hopes of dot-com wealth. But the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology has chosen the opposite
path: to post virtually all its course materials on the
Web, free to everybody. MIT announced on Wednesday a 10-year
initiative, apparently the biggest of its kind, which aims
to create public Web sites for almost all of its 2,000 courses,
and to post materials like lecture notes, problem sets,
syllabuses, exams, simulations, even video lectures. Professors'
participation will be voluntary, but the university is committing
itself to post sites for all its courses, at a cost of up
to $100 million.
Vest, the president of MIT, said the giveaway idea came
in a "traditional Eureka moment" as the institute - like
nearly every other university - brainstormed and soul-searched
about how best to take advantage of the Internet.
OpenCourseWare, the initiative found broad resonance among
the faculty members, said Steven Lerman, the faculty chairman.
content for profit, or trying in some ways to commercialize
one of the core intellectual activities of the university,"
Professor Lerman said, "seemed less attractive to people
at a deep level than finding ways to disseminate it as broadly
have been flocking into "distance learning" - offering courses
online to off-campus paying students - and commercial ventures
have been investing tens of millions in the idea. But those
ventures tend to pick and choose among courses and professors,
rather than trying to offer a whole university in one swoop.
the same time, on campus, universities have begun creating
a great many course Web sites. The University of California
at Los Angeles creates a site for every undergraduate course.
But those are generally only for internal use, and the MIT
initiative, which offers no credit to visitors of the site,
appears to dwarf even those internal programs.
think everybody else besides MIT is in the position of being
more cautious," and watching to see what Internet strategy
works best, said David Brady, vice provost for learning
technologies at Stanford University.
software entrepreneur from the Washington area, Michael
Saylor, pledged $100 million of his own money to create
an online free university a year ago, but the plan called
for building it from scratch, and the value of his stock
has plummeted. MIT's plan is different from Mr. Saylor's,
Mr. Vest said, in that, "for one thing, it's going to happen."
difference between the MIT plan and other Internet initiatives
is that it makes no attempt to offer full-fledged, for-credit
courses online. Rather, it will offer course materials as
ingredients of learning that can be combined with teacher-student
interaction somewhere else - or simply explored by, say,
professors in Chile or precocious high school students in
is the institute not worried that students will balk at
paying about $26,000 a year in MIT tuition when they can
get all their materials online?
not," Mr. Vest said. "Our central value is people and the
human experience of faculty working with students in classrooms
and laboratories, and students learning from each other,
and the kind of intensive environment we create in our residential
don't think we are giving away the direct value, by any
means, that we give to students," he said. "But I think
we will help other institutions around the world."
of the 940 faculty members support the plan, Professor Lerman
and others said, but some have reservations. Some argued
that the institute would be giving away a valuable asset
that could be used to subsidize the residential students.
question of whether university knowledge can be turned into
online gold remains a big one, however; most firms that
are trying it, Mr. Vest said, have encountered "much rougher
sailing" than expected. Other faculty skeptics questioned
whether it would be a good use of professors' time to labor
over Web sites, and others have questioned whether sub-par
Web sites might not end up reflecting badly on the institution.
there is the question of intellectual property, already
a thorny one in academia as the promise of Internet riches
exacerbates the question of who owns the electronic rights
to a professor's lectures and research. But Professor Lerman
and others said that issues of intellectual property had
surfaced little in the months of faculty discussion of the
initiative. Rather, they said, a willingness, even an eagerness,
to share appeared to dominate.
is a natural fit to what the Web is really all about," Mr.
Vest said. "We've learned this lesson over and over again.
You can't have tight, closed-up systems. We've tried to
open up software infrastructure in a variety of ways, and
that's what unleashed the creativity of software developers;
I think the same thing can happen in education."
fact, MIT is a hotbed of the "open-source" software movement;
and this new Internet initiative is based on a similar idea,
according to Hal Abelson, a professor of computer science
and engineering who is involved in both.
they proceed from the same ethic, which has to do with sharing,"
he said. "In the Middle Ages people built cathedrals, where
the whole town would get together and make a thing that's
greater than any individual person could do and the society
would kind of revel in that. We don't do that as much anymore,
but in a sense this is kind of like building a cathedral."
initiative is to begin with a two-year pilot program to
put materials from more than 500 courses on the Web. Mr.
Vest said he did not rule out the possibility that MIT might
seek to develop profit-oriented Web programs in the future.
Goldberg, New York Times Service, International Herald
Tribune, Thursday, April 5, 2001