In April 2001, when President Charles Vest HM announced that MIT would post its course material-outlines, lecture notes, homework assignments, exams, and more-free on the Web, he made headline news around the world and sparked concerns close to home. While other leading universities, such as Columbia and Cornell, were busy launching ambitious initiatives in for-pay distance learning, many at MIT wondered how the project-dubbed OpenCourseWare, or OCW for short-would be funded. Alumni worried that it would devalue their degrees. Faculty expressed concern about whether submitting material would be mandatory or voluntary and about related time constraints.But MIT administrators believed that OpenCourseWare would have an enormous impact, and now, more than three years into the plan, unsolicited plaudits arrive via e-mail in the OCW office on a daily basis. “I not only refer to OCW several times a week myself but also ask my computer science students to consult it. Great work by all of you at MIT,” wrote Sajid Latif, an engineer and teacher in Pakistan. Pekka Tolonen, a self-learner in Spain, wrote, “Your free-of-charge OCW is something brilliant. You are showing an applaudable example of returning to the very fundamental academic values-information open and available for all!” Alumni have welcomed the site as well. Patrick Kim ‘87, who works for DaimlerChrysler in Germany, wrote, “You have created a new world for learning. I have seldom felt so excited about new knowledge. I felt some of the drink out of the fire hose’ effect while browsing for the first time: so much to learn, and such a short lunch break.”
Not only has OCW been well received, but it has also overcome initial concerns. With 700 courses available this spring, the project appears dramatically less expensive than anticipated: estimates for its startup costs have dropped from $100 million to $40 million. A streamlined process for uploading course materials has allayed early apprehension about the amount of time faculty would need to devote to the project, and about one-half of MIT’s 950 professors are already participating. Approximately 250,000 viewers per month visit the site, and the OCW staff encourages people inside and outside MIT to suggest ways to improve it. With the project on firm ground internally, the project staff is now looking beyond MIT, encouraging other U.S. schools to work along similar lines and partnering with major university consortia overseas.
Despite OCW’s documented successes, Anne Margulies, the project’s executive director, cautions, “We’re still early on.” It’s still a mammoth task to get 2,000 courses online by 2008-and to get many other educational institutions to follow suit.