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MIT OpenCourseWare expands for high school students

Social-learning network with free access to MIT course content to add portal for high school students and teachers.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is taking on the issue of inadequate education for youth by extending its OpenCourseWare (OCW) program to include secondary level students.

Susan Hockfield, MIT's president, announced the initiative at an event to celebrate OpenCourseWare's fifth anniversary Wednesday evening.

MIT's OpenCourseWare, which has the motto "unlocking knowledge, empowering minds," has offered free access to MIT course syllabi, assigned readings, and lecture notes since its pilot program in 2002 and official opening in 2003.

MIT President Susan Hockfield Candace Lombardi/CNET News.com

"The new initiative, Highlights for High School, will be a customized portal into OCW designed to specially meet the needs of high school students and teachers who have interest in and hunger for these materials," said Hockfield.

MIT was inspired to introduce the initiative after it found surprising statistics. About 15,000 high school students per month download OCW MIT course work.

"Remember OpenCourseWare is MIT course work. And it was a bit surprising to us to learn about the use by high school students and high school teachers. But many schools have cut back on the 'Gifted and Talented' programs, and we've heard that high school teachers are using it to supplement their gifted students who are missing out," said Hockfield.

MIT believes there is a need for these materials. Educators in the U.S. and around the world struggle with low budgets and cut programs. Students hungry for information often don't have access to it.

"In the eyes of many, including myself, this is a national crisis," said Hockfield.

Thomas Friedman, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist, and author of the best seller The World Is Flat who gave the keynote at the event, agreed with Hockfield's sentiment but was more optimistic.

Thomas Friedman at MIT's OpenCourseWare anniversary event Candace Lombardi/CNET News.com

While our country may be suffering from a "dumb as we want to be" Congress, in Friedman's words, the stacks of letters from educators, students, and companies asking the Times columnist to come see their latest innovations and collaborations points to a story of people inspired.

"How an institute or school empowers the individual imagination will be the single most competitive edge," he said.

"This era of globalization is based around individuals...I'm not sure economics has fully been able to capture far below the firm level. I call it gross individual product," Friedman said.

The Highlights for High School program seeks to help gifted students, but also inspire more high school students to pursue careers in science and engineering without intimidation, according to Hockfield.

OCW was originally designed to share MIT course work--there are MIT groups that have even translated the content into other languages--to make it accessible to the world.

Since the start of the initiative, the OCW site has received 40 million visits by 30 million unique visitors from around the world. About 60 percent of OCW users come from outside the U.S., and 50 percent describe themselves as "independent learners."

"As with anything at MIT, the faculty are really the stars of the show. Over 90 percent have contributed voluntarily to OCW," said Hockfield.

The courses that can be accessed are what you would expect from one of the leading science and technology institutions in the world. Linear algebra, differential equations, microelectronic devices and circuits, and computer system engineering are among the most popular. But OCW also has a wide collection of courses on topics like anthropology, women's studies, and literature.