Free online material causes rethink in US

April 12, 2001

A decision by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to make nearly all its course materials available free online is prompting US academic institutions to re-examine plans for online courses.

Stanley Ikenberry, former head of the University of Illinois and president of the American Council on Education, told the Chicago Tribune newspaper:

"What we may be seeing is that the promises of a pot of gold at the end of the internet rainbow for education, as in so many other areas, is a little more elusive than it perhaps appeared."

MIT announced that it would put instructional materials from nearly all its 2,000 courses online for free, including lecture notes, syllabuses and reading lists.

MIT president Charles Vest said the action, which will cost $100 million (£70 million) over ten years, was intended to "change the way the web is used in higher education".

Faculty chairman Steven Lerman said the school was concerned with the increasing privatisation of knowledge, which he said was contrary to "the tradition at MIT and in American higher education of open dissemination of educational materials".

Officials at other universities, including Harvard and Stanford, said they would review plans for putting course materials online.

"Everybody knows that the way to make progress in science is by using the best results of others - standing on the shoulders of giants," said Paul Penfield, an electrical engineering professor. "That's why we publish scientific results." The so-called OpenCourseWare (OCW) plan, he said, "will let the same thing happen in education. I'm personally looking forward to having my ideas used and improved on by others."

Faculty will retain ownership of most materials prepared for MIT OCW, following the university's policy on textbook authorship. MIT will retain ownership only when significant use has been made of the institute's resources. If student coursework is placed on the MIT OCW website, copyright remains with the student. MIT plans to monitor the use of its materials in some way, but there are no details yet, particularly over the use of students' work that has been posted to the site.

About 75 per cent of US universities have some online presence. The e-learning sector, which includes corporate training and education, has been projected to grow from a value of $6.3 billion this year to more than $23 billion in 2004.

•On the day that the MIT move was announced, General Motors Corporation reached a deal with UNext to provide business courses to 88,000 employees.

UNext is a for-profit collaboration that involves business schools at Columbia, Stanford, and Chicago universities and the London School of Economics.

The company made more than 50 staff redundant recently. UNext president Dick Stubel said: "We undertake the elimination of jobs with a heavy heart but we, like all businesses, periodically need to adjust our growth and staffing plans to be in harmony with the services we are providing."

The job losses came days after UNext announced that Thomson Learning had made a strategic investment in the company. Thomson Learning will also offer online postgraduate courses with Universitas 21, a consortium of 18 universities worldwide.

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