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MIT tries free Web education

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology launches an ambitious program to put materials for all of its 2,000 courses online, for free.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has decided to publish online all its course materials--a $107,840 value.

The MIT OpenCourseWare project launched two weeks ago with a preliminary pilot that just scratches the surface of MIT's publishing ambitions. As of Sept. 30, people with an Internet connection and a Web browser have been able to access the syllabus, lecture notes, exams and answers, and in some cases, even the videotaped lectures of 32 MIT courses.

So far, more than 130,000 Web visitors from around the world have plugged into the pilot, tapping into a vein of information for which MIT undergraduates pay $26,960 per year for tuition.

"This material is out there for the good of mankind," said Jon Paul Potts, an MIT spokesperson. "There is no attempt to charge for this. There is no revenue model."

By the 2006-2007 school year, MIT plans to publish the course materials for virtually all of its 2,000 graduate and undergraduate courses.

The move to put the materials online stems from a multiyear effort by the MIT faculty to forge a unified approach to online access to its classes. The faculty's efforts picked up pace while two related Internet phenomena--distance learning and open-source software--were gathering steam.

MIT embraced a comparison to the open-source model, in which the source code for both grass-roots and corporate software titles is published, developed and licensed free of charge.

"We are fighting the commercialization of knowledge, much in the same way that open-source people are fighting the commercialization of software," Potts said.

No free degree
MIT has stopped short of offering its degrees with a similarly free pricing scheme. The university insists that its online course materials--even when the full 2000 courses' worth are published--are not meant to be a substitute for an MIT education, much less an MIT degree. No course credits are available online.

"We have always stated that we are not in any way, shape or form trying to replicate an MIT education," Potts said. "An MIT education happens in the classroom, by interacting with other students and with faculty, not by reading some Web pages or downloading some materials, or even watching a video lecture."

That philosophy hasn't kept students from getting an increasing amount of their MIT education in the privacy of their own dorm room, rather than attending live lectures.

"We're fighting commercialization of knowledge, much in the same way that open-source people are fighting commercialization of software."
--Jon Paul Potts, MIT spokesperson

"I see the numbers of students at my lectures going down," said Gilbert Strang, an MIT math professor who publishes his lectures online in a video format. "They figure they can get it online at midnight when they're ready, instead of one in the afternoon when I'm ready. I wish they came to the actual live lectures, because I put a lot of energy into it, but if the videos are good for them, that's OK."

Just putting the courses online has been an education in technology, according to MIT. While the pilot was published using hand coded, "brute force" methods, the school is now evaluating a number of content-managing systems it hopes will ease the process of publishing the remaining 1,968 courses.

Like open-source projects, MIT has placed some restrictions on how its materials can be used. One can't repackage the information and sell it, for example. But the faculty does intend for the materials to be used by other schools and teachers.

While there are no current plans for publishing except in English, the project is encouraging the translation of the materials for speakers of other languages.

MIT President Charles Vest called "open knowledge systems" the wave of the academic future.

"The computer industry learned the hard way that closed software systems...did not fit the world they themselves had created," the president said in last year's annual report. "Higher education must learn from this. We must create open knowledge systems as the new framework for teaching and learning."