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Teach Locally, Educate Globally

Two years after its launch, OpenCourseWare is sparking a worldwide chain reaction.

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.

Setting a New CourseWare

Vest’s announcement came after two years of study by the Council on Educational Technology, which formed a working group in 1999 to investigate distance learning and other educational opportunities made available by new technologies. The group conducted a broad survey and found that faculty valued face-to-face instruction above everything, says Steven Lerman ‘72, SM ‘73, PhD ‘75, professor of civil and environmental engineering and current chair of the OCW faculty advisory committee. Delivering that instruction online looked expensive and impractical for MIT, the group concluded. But it still wanted to use the Web to enhance MIT’s mission, and the novel idea of publishing MIT’s course content for free gained momentum.

After the announcement, MIT staff on temporary loan to the project immediately began grappling with the questions of how to gather course material and present it on the Web in a clean, consistent fashion. Margulies arrived in May 2002, and the pilot site with 32 courses debuted that September. The pilot drew a good early reaction, with about 120,000 visitors the first month and “overwhelmingly positive” feedback, says Margulies.

Before Margulies could make progress with the permanent site, though, she and her team had to resolve software problems. The pilot was delivered using basic HTML tools rather than one of the full-blown content management systems typically used to build big websites. Eventually the staff settled on Microsoft’s Content Management Server software to put the material on the Web. But the decision came just a few months before the site was supposed to launch. “We had to race like crazy,” says OCW technical director Cecilia d’Oliveira ‘77, SM ‘79, to create procedures, customize the content management system, and crunch out 500 courses by September 2003.

Faculty Benefits

The success of OCW rests on the bedrock of faculty culture, which combines research, education, public service, and entrepreneurism, Margulies says. She’s been surprised by “the generosity of MIT faculty,” she says. “They give time they don’t have.” But as all university administrators know, time is not cheap. So MIT provides its professors with an incentive to contribute material to OCW: a $3,000 stipend for each course added to the site.

For some faculty, though, the time element has not been a factor. Putting courses online was “a pretty painless process, because I was already creating Web material for my classes,” says history professor Jeffrey Ravel. He’s glad to get occasional e-mails about his work from people all over the world, and he used his stipend to help fund a research trip to Paris.

Others say OCW promulgates the best of MIT. “Anything that spreads information about MIT to the U.S. and the world has to be a plus,” declares Joseph Sussman, PhD ‘68, professor of civil and environmental engineering and engineering systems. Sussman sent out e-mails to hundreds of colleagues, encouraging them to check out his Transportation Systems course (1.221J) online. The 500-plus slides he posted can act as a course skeleton for others teaching transportation from a systems perspective-thus helping to spread that perspective. “We hope that others will share with us as well,” he adds.

OCW has produced “the kind of impact I’d hoped for,” says Adam C. Powell IV ‘92, ‘92, PhD ‘97, assistant professor of materials science and engineering. “I hadn’t realized how much of a shock it would be to people at other institutions.” He has received comments on his courses from around the world, “with one correction and a couple of things that could make my teaching stronger.”

Lerman also points to internal benefits. OCW helps faculty members see what others are teaching; for instance, they can see what students will learn in prerequisite courses. And while OCW wasn’t created for MIT students, they stand to profit from it as well. Students enjoy a broader selection of online course material, provided with consistent quality and accessibility, and some check out the site to help pick upcoming courses. Eventually, Lerman says, he hopes OCW can help foster “communities of practice” that aid teaching in specific disciplines, such as math and physics. Higher education is still mostly a “cottage industry,” he says, with teachers rarely sharing their approaches in detail. OCW courses could act as a starting point for discussing practices-for instance, how to teach the basics of electromagnetic fields.

Figuring the Future

Although OCW is off to a good start, there’s still much to be done. In addition to putting the rest of the courses online, Margulies says, the project will “continue to improve the quality and usefulness of what’s published.” Several efforts to do that are under way. One will add more video to the site. OCW will film brief class introductions and exemplary lectures (from famous faculty about to retire, for example) and select video clips of lab demonstrations, field trips, or other educational events.

Another initiative is archiving. Ideally, d’Oliveira says, a course will stay on the OCW site for three or four years and then be replaced by an updated version. The OCW staff is working with MIT Libraries to archive the earlier editions in DSpace, MIT’s digital archive.

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