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There’s a 1998 collection of essays about higher education and information technology called Dancing with the Devil, an apt metaphor for the mix of exhilaration and dread with which universities contemplate their online futures. One particularly seductive dream depicts the university as a kind of farm that grows a fruit called “educational content.” If only one could harvest that content, the dream goes, and prepare, package, and market it on the Internet, it would be an easy new revenue source virtually for the picking.

In spring 2001, with such dreams in full force, the unveiling of MIT OpenCourseWare caused a stir. Rather than trying to package and sell its content, MIT made a commitment to place its course materials on the World Wide Web, free and open to everyone. “[M]any see [MIT OpenCourseWare] as an important statement that course materials should be considered scholarly publications, not commercial products,” reported the Chronicle of Higher Education in its June 18, 2001 issue.

“We’re hoping that this is going to reinforce the concept that ideas are the common property of all of us, and they’re not just proprietary products,” commented Ira Fuchs of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which, with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, provided the initial funding for OpenCourseWare.

Two years after its launch, MIT OpenCourseWare had placed over 900 courses online, halfway to its goal of publishing all MIT graduate and undergraduate courses by 2008. The website welcomes 15,000 visitors a day from almost every country on Earth. University projects to translate major portions of the MIT corpus into Spanish, Portuguese, and Chinese are under way, and smaller, ad hoc efforts have translated individual courses into a dozen other languages. And the site’s content might soon become even more robust. Half a dozen institutions are exploring plans to join the Institute’s efforts by adding their own courses as part of a multi-university OpenCourseWare Consortium.

OpenCourseWare lets the world benefit from the excellence of MIT teaching. It also makes a major  statement on the importance of enriching that fertile ground of shared knowledge, the information commons. Everyone is free not only to use OpenCourseWare material, but also to reuse it—to make translations, excerpts, and adaptations that will further nourish the commons. This cycle of reuse fuels creativity in education, art, and science, providing the intellectual raw material for future innovations.

But the information commons is also at risk. The same Internet that allows people to share information across the world can also bring with it digital restriction systems that measure, license, and control access to information. That kind of control is inimical to the open exchange of ideas that underlies academic values.

A university that markets its curriculum online rather than sharing it freely will create extra revenue. But universities that purchase online curriculum are subject to digital access restrictions written into the terms of their licensing agreements. A university’s license to use online content might require that it forbid students from sharing their course work with friends at other universities, with anyone outside their class, or even from accessing their own work after the end of the course. Will Professor Smith be permitted to revise Professor Jones’s online materials to fit her class? Perhaps not, when digital access controls are backed up by law.

Such restrictions might seem unlikely today, but they will become increasingly familiar in a world where educational content is an online commodity. Indeed, the legal basis has already been provided. In 2002, copyright law was revised by the“Teach Act,” giving faculty rights to use copyrighted online materials for class-teaching purposes, but only if access is limited to students in the class and the university has put digital access controls in place.

OpenCourseWare is more than a showcase for MIT’s excellence in higher education. It’s a reminder of the power of open sharing and of the need for universities to value openness when they assess possible digital futures. As the devil’s dance between education and the Internet continues, OpenCourseWare might turn out to be a guardian angel.

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