Massachussetts Institute of Technology: Wide open horizons

January 1, 1990

October 6 2012

Reputation is a multifaceted concept: ask US powerhouse MIT. By pioneering open courseware, it has kick-started a global movement - and as Steve Carson shows, this is just the beginning

In 2002, a faculty committee at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology made a proposal that was as simple as it was revolutionary: instead of creating a for-profit distance-learning venture like many of its peers were doing, MIT should use the internet to give away for free the core teaching material from all its classes.

Over the past 10 years, MIT has published the core academic content - including syllabi, lecture notes, assignments and examinations - from more than 2,100 of its courses through the MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) website (

This also includes a wide range of additional digital resources created for instruction at MIT, including simulations, animations and sample code. Fifty of the published courses also include complete streaming video of the course lectures, allowing site visitors to step right into MIT classrooms.

The OCW site reflects MIT's deeply held commitment to the dissemination of knowledge and the improvement of education worldwide. Since its launch, the materials have been accessed by more than 100 million educators and learners worldwide.

The former use the site to develop curricula, enhance their own teaching material and develop their personal knowledge; the latter at universities around the globe use OCW content to complement the material they receive in their own classes and study beyond the scope of their formal programmes, and independent learners from all walks of life use the site for personal enjoyment and professional development.

Jean-Ronel Noel, an entrepreneur who develops small solar appliances for some of Haiti's poorest communities, describes why OCW was his resource of choice for learning about integrated circuits: "It was much better than any other information I found on the internet, since the other sites were written by electronics experts who assumed that it would be read by other experts.

"I didn't want to just copy the circuit without understanding it. OCW was different because it explained things step by step. Using it saved us a lot of time and money."

In just two and a half years, Noel's company has installed more than 500 solar-powered street lamps in 58 cities and remote villages in Haiti.

OCW has also helped to launch a broader movement towards open education on the World Wide Web. More than 250 universities and organisations have joined MIT in sharing course content openly through the OpenCourseWare Consortium.

The consortium counts among its members such well-known institutions as the University of Oxford, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Tokyo and Seoul National University, working hand in hand with institutions as diverse as the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, the Virtual University of Pakistan and Utah Valley University in the US. Together these institutions have shared content from more than 17,000 courses.

Course content, however, is only the beginning of the open education movement. In the past decade, open content has been coupled with open opportunities for study and interaction through sites such as Peer 2 Peer University and OpenStudy, which leverage open content and social media technologies to create new, free informal learning spaces. Open education projects such as Khan Academy are also experimenting with fresh modes of assessment and certification. In autumn 2011, academics at Stanford University's computer science programme brought together many of these elements to offer three open education courses, the largest of which - an artificial intelligence programme - has enrolled more than 160,000 students.

The movement has now come full circle, with MIT announcing in December 2011 the launch of a new open education effort, MITx ( edu), which will combine open content developed specifically for online learning, an open learning community and low-cost certification of content mastery. The first MITx course is expected to be available this year. MITx also includes a significant digital learning research effort and the development of an open source platform for scalable open learning that will be available to any university that wants to undertake similar initiatives.

While open education has already touched the lives of millions, efforts such as MITx are beginning to demonstrate that its impact may be only in its nascent stages. Open education holds out the promise for educational opportunities that are scalable, flexible and available to virtually anyone with the interest and aptitude to take them on. It is difficult to say how these efforts will affect campus-based education at this point, but for the many millions around the globe who will never have the opportunity to attend a traditional university, a whole new world of learning is on the horizon.

Steve Carson is external relations director, MIT OpenCourseWare

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