Thursday, September 23, 2004
5:00 - 7:00 p.m.
20 Ames Street
its third year, MIT's OpenCourseWare initiative now offers the
course materials from 900 courses, from all schools and departments
at the Institute. Available free of charge to anyone with access
to the World Wide Web, the site is currently 35 gigabytes in
size, containing 11,425 HTML pages, nearly 9,000 images and
nearly 14,000 unique PDF pages. The project's ultimate goal
is to make MIT's entire curriculum freely and openly available
to a global audience of students, educators and self-learners.
In this progress report, our speakers will discuss the challenges
and false starts of this project, as well as the successes that
have marked the development of this bold venture. They will
demonstrate a sampling of the material available on OCW and
present data profiling the global community that makes use of
the site. [Tech
Steven Lerman is the director of the Center for Educational
Computing Initiatives and is the Class of 1922 Distinguished
Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT.
Margulies is the executive director of the OpenCourseWare
is almost entirely positive, although when it was first announced,
many people were nervous and asked, what is MIT really doing
and what will it lead to? Most people have since become receptive
to the idea. Our discussion today will focus on the vision for
OCW, its implementation, its current impact and its larger context.
to the idea of OpenCourseWare? In the fall of 1999, the midst
of the dot com era, several universities were proposing for-profit
Internet-based education programs. The Council on Educational
Technology was formed at MIT to discuss ideas about such programs
and what MIT should do about distance Internet education. Consultants
hired by the committee asked faculty and the MIT community what
they wished to do and what they felt would be an appropriate
step to take in keeping with MIT’s core beliefs.
It was already
known that a new MIT would not be created, nor would our faculty
become the teachers of three million students in a virtual classroom.
The faculty responded by stressing that they valued the integration
of research within education, the face-to-face teacher-student
interaction, and the residential education that MIT offers.
a series of economic models, the Council on Educational Technology
concluded that it was not possible to run a profitable business
that respected the principles important to the faculty. Of course,
as seen with the Apollo Group, which operates the University
of Phoenix, it is possible to make a profit through distance-based
education if these MIT priorities are not relevant.
What else could be done? A university exists for three main
reasons: to educate the next generation, advance the state of
human knowledge, and serve the nation and the world. Realizing
this, the committee decided to create something that would be
useful and interesting and of service to the United States and
the world. It was proposed that all learning material be made
open to all and earning a profit disregarded. The Internet would
be a vector for spreading knowledge. An initial expectation
was that this would encourage a global conversation on methods
of learning and teaching.
was just crazy enough to interest MIT faculty, and in particular,
President Chuck Vest and Provost Bob Brown. Most of the faculty
approved of the idea as long as it did not cost too much or
take up too much time.
of 2001, Vest publicly announced the OpenCourseWare project
to The New York Times and in a press conference. He exceeded
the proposed plan by publicizing the initiative as a permanent
feature of the Institute. OCW became a prominent aspect of his
presidency as he discussed it frequently with Corporation members
and became personally involved in fundraising. The Hewlett Foundation
and the Mellon Foundation agreed to provide the $11 million
needed for the project’s first phase, which was launched
in September 2002.
program consisted of fifty hand-constructed courses, created
with a great deal of work and effort. Near the end of 2002,
a full-time director was hired to build regular staff, and the
target of 500 courses that was promised to the foundations was
met in 2003. Just last week 200 more classes were added, bringing
the total to 900 courses, halfway to the long-term goal of 1,800
classes. [UPDATE: As of Nov. 1, 2005, there were 1,200 courses
published on OCW.]
It is important
to realize what OCW is not. It is not an education, but is comparable
to reading textbooks. There is no interaction, no dialogue with
a professor. It is a kind of free publication available to anyone
with access to the Internet. And, finally, it is permanent.
information using technology; therefore its mission and method
hold particular appeal to MIT. Faculty involvement is voluntary,
so it is crucial that they benefit from this in some way. OCW
helps organize materials for teaching, improves teaching by
sharing best practices with a larger community, and encourages
pride in the structure of curricula within each discipline.
opposes the increase in privatization of knowledge. It is open
to any non-commercial or educational use and can be used to
teach other courses. It can also be modified and translated
as long as the course’s creator is recognized and acknowledged.
of getting all MIT courses on line is now a realistic one, since
the project has been received so positively and because we now
have a developed infrastructure, set of methods, and staff.
mission has become a dual mission to publish all of MIT’s
course material and do this in a way that others want to emulate.
It will fail in this latter mission if it only stays at MIT.
type of material presented is variable, OCW is unique in its
breadth and depth. There are courses from all 33 academic departments
and the average course contains seven types of materials, adding
up to over 40,000 files of content. Continuing with these statistics,
65 of the courses include video material, 75 have been translated
into Spanish, and many are currently being translated into Chinese.
And, seven of the courses now have learning communities that
allow learners to converse with each other, asking for and offering
of intellectual property was seen as the biggest challenge in
launching OCW. It was resolved by asking the faculty to grant
MIT and OCW the right to just digitally publish their material.
This ensured they were not giving away their rights or material.
measure the response to OCW by measuring its access, use, and
first 500 courses were introduced a little over a year ago,
there was significant traffic to the site, and there has been
a high, steady level of traffic since. In the last year, the
average number of visits per day has been about 11,000 visits.
We are experiencing a spike in visits right now, which could
have something to do with the introduction of the 200 new courses
or the international media coverage we are receiving right now.
Of these visits, 60% are international and 40% are from the
U.S. India users recently topped those in China for having the
most users to the site. While we regularly receive visits from
users in North America, East Asia, and Western Europe, we do
not have much traffic from sub-Saharan Africa, perhaps because
of the lack of network infrastructure and bandwidth. To improve
this, we are working on a pilot program with a university in
Tanzania. We gave them a copy of the site, which they will load
onto a mirror site on their fairly robust campus network. This
will hopefully make OCW more available to users in sub-Saharan
OCW and how do they use it? There are three groups of users:
educators, students, and self-learners. Educators are using
OCW to plan and develop their own courses, as well as to self-learn.
Students use it to complement their own material and help them
study, as well as explore other subjects that interest them.
Self-learners, the largest group, use OCW to learn on their
our users to evaluate the site, and 99% said that it would have
a moderate to extremely positive impact on them. Users have
described in their own words the impact OCW has had on them.
Sathappan Ramaswamy, an Indian self-learner wrote, “If
you are able to list all the adjectives available in all the
languages on Earth, it will still not explain completely a user’s
now also big supporters of OCW, though many were concerned when
it was first announced because they didn’t understand
it and worried that it would devalue their own degrees. One
alum, Rogerio Machado, just one of hundreds writing in support
of OCW, wrote that “as an alum from a developing country
I am proud of the beauty, lacking a truly significant word,
of this extremely generous and wise MIT initiative.”
All members of the MIT community are benefiting from OCW. It
increased the amount of web use by creating a website for classes
that didn’t have websites. It allows alums to stay current
in their field and connected to MIT, and allows faculty members
to learn about their colleagues’ work. Department heads
are able to communicate what makes their department unique from
similar departments at other universities. Students have used
it to research the classes they are interested in. OCW could
even potentially become a recruitment tool.
now other relatively small-scale OCWs around the world in India,
Vietnam, and Germany. At least six of these sites are modeled
after the MIT site. We have partnered with a Madrid company,
Universia, to translate our courses into Spanish or Portuguese.
We have also formed a partnership with China Open Resources
for Education (CORE) in China. They are sharing 1000 of their
courses, although they have said that due to competition for
ministry resources, sharing does not come naturally to them.
Because we want MIT faculty to understand that the OCW site
is a high quality site that is worth of their material, it is
worth mentioning that the site has won awards for vision, design,
and the technology it uses.
THORBURN, COMMUNICATIONS FORUM DIRECTOR: Once sites
for two of my courses were launched, I immediately received
e-mail requesting information on where I had gotten my materials,
how I teach the class. This really shows the impact of OCW.
For my own course, I was asked to do a video introduction, because
OCW wanted to find out what instructors want to teach, how they
want to teach it, and their course objectives. This video provides
educational context for users, as well. I found this helpful
and would like to find out if users found it helpful.
This sort of feedback will be part of a study that we will launch
in November. We will ask for specific information, including
what contents users find most helpful.
From my own experience lecturing on OCW in Austria, I have found
that the video lectures are very powerful. The audience was
amazed to see the style of the lecturer and it helped them to
understand the structure of the lectures.
About a dozen of our courses have these videotape courses and
another 40 classes have video clips. These videos help give
the context of how the classes are taught.
Have you considered how you might harvest information from users
for purposes besides evaluation? Users’ profile information
could detail what they would like more of, what they are interested
in. For example, the Sloan Review could ask users that are interested
in Sloan business classes on OCW whether they would like to
subscribe to the magazine.
We already conduct a fairly extensive survey for evaluation
purposes. To acquire the sort of information you suggest it
would be necessary for users to register. Many users still suspect
OCW of an ulterior motive, and if we asked them to register
themselves they would become confused about our motives.
Could you address the issue of copyright more fully? I wanted
to use a cartoon from The New Yorker for one of my
courses, yet couldn’t get permission to use it without
paying a large fee. I was able to circumvent that particular
problem because a student rendered a version of it, but this
is a very prevalent problem in Humanities courses. Often, this
material is central to the course. Can and will anything be
done about this?
When we were preparing the last 200 courses, we identified about
3000 items that involved a third party. We were able to obtain
permission to publish 60% of these items. Still, a lot more
can be done on the issue. We have not worked with the publishers
so far, and that is something we’d like to do. It may
be possible to arrange a blanket agreement to allow use to use
small third-party items without having to ask permission for
each one. We may ask publisher to make more material available
for open publishing, and in return we could provide online links
back to the publisher. Instead of a revenue loss for the publisher,
this partnership could turn into a marketing tool.
There are substantial materials on OCW, such as textbooks.
Yes, some MIT faculty authors have arranged for the book’s
copyright to revert to them, so they are able to control the
book if it goes out of print. This is how the site can publish
Two more textbooks will go up in the next round of publication,
What kind of organizational challenges or resistance within
MIT did you face in launching the OCW project?
In the early phases of the project, the key issue was giving
the faculty of clear vision of what they were signing up for.
They needed to see a model of what they were getting involved
in, what we had in mind.
In terms of implementation, the biggest challenge was the fact
that involvement was voluntary for the faculty. We listened
to faculty concerns and realized that time commitment for the
development process needed to be minimized as much as possible
for them. We organized OCW staff into a small core group of
managers and a group of department liaisons. Their task was
to work with the faculty members, become familiar with the departments,
encourage the faculty to take the time to look at the site and
approve their course. These liaisons have really become part
of the department.
I don’t know of any other MIT organization that has this
structure of a central staff and distributed staff among the
departments, and we’ve learned that the faculty really
I am familiar with a pilot program in India that has
about 20 courses right now. I know that you are helping other
institutions do their own pilot programs. Are they running these
programs off of your software, or are they re-creating the software
We are aiding other pilots by giving advice on the way we handled
issues such as process design or copyright concerns. It doesn’t
matter to us what software they are using. We didn’t develop
our own software, but used a commercial product instead. We
are sharing our experience and are trying to help these pilot
programs avoid pitfalls. There is also a How-To manual online
that covers the entire process, the technology we used, our
organization, and the benefits of OCW. It can be found at http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb/HowTo/index.htm.
I am with the Foreign Languages and Literatures department here
at MIT in Chinese, and I know that Chinese is a culturally distant
language. I am wondering who monitors the translations of the
OCW site, since these translated sites could become a very different
site. What are the consequences of this possibility?
We cannot monitor the translations out there. With sites that
we choose to recognize, we do use translators that we trust,
as with Universia. What may be a larger problem is what these
sites choose to translate. China blocked all of MIT’s
websites for a period of time, due to political reasons. So,
what these sites choose to translate may be a bigger issue.
No one has to ask our permission to translate the site. Universia
uses professional translators to first translate the site. Then,
faculty members from one of their university campuses review
the materials. With our pilot program with them, our Spanish-teaching
faculty approved their translations as high quality. Universia
benefits from this partnership because we make the material
easier to translate and they are able to have a direct link
to our site. We benefit from this because Spanish and Portuguese
speakers have direct access to our site. We are implementing
this with China, as well. These are the only types of translations
we officially recognize and link to.
Do you know of any organization that is trying to provide this
structure for K-12 mathematics and science education?
We have talked with some K-12 schools that are interested
in this sort of program, but financial issues are a major obstacle.
Also, K-12 schools are usually more reliant on textbooks, since
the teaching faculty does not often write their own material.
It is less likely that we will be able to publish this sort
Some self-learners are secondary students who are able to use
some of our material.
What is the cost of implementing and operating a program like
Most of the cost is for labor, not technology. Our software
cost only about $25,000, but there is a great deal of work that
goes into implementing the program and building the site. I
am confident, however, that a lower-cost OCW can be developed.
Are you using UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program)
students to help develop OCW?
We did approach the UROP office about involving students in
the project, but the office decided that the sort of work we
were doing was too uncreative for students to work on as research.
However, we now have some creative projects in mind for UROP
students and plan to involve students more. We are paying students
to take notes for a class, and once approved by the faculty,
these notes are used on the site.
Often, too, the tasks that we do are not appropriate for UROP
students because they are time sensitive. Students tend to become
scarce around exam periods, which is necessary and expected,
so the tasks they would be asked to complete do not work with
Why don’t some professors download the courses from OCW
and teach them, instead of developing their own material?
Perhaps there are some that do. However, the teaching
work load is so much greater at many universities, especially
in developing countries, and professors may not have the time
to develop lessons. I am okay with these professors using the
OCW lectures and lessons, since it is practical and may be the
best way to get the best material to their students.
Why weren’t there learning communities from the beginning?
Cost was an issue in the beginning, and even though
we realized everyone wanted something like a learning community,
we had to make sure costs were contained so that MIT could permanently
maintain OCW. There were also liability concerns about potential
postings of embarrassing comments or materials. We are now able
to provide these learning communities because we are partnered
with a Utah State University faculty member who is fully funding
the learning communities in order to study their methods and
In the early days of the web, the MIT Communications Forum experimented
with an interactive commentary and discussion. The discussion
was ruined by someone who posted profanity and a stream of irrelevant
Our learning communities have a system to deal with this problem.
Users can give kudos to postings that they found especially
useful or interesting, and mark disrespectful users as “flamers”.
If other people agree on the flamer’s status, the user
is removed from the discussion.
What level of Internet connection is the OCW site optimized
for? How are other countries’ lower Internet capacities
In sub-Saharan Africa, the price for bandwidth is extraordinarily
high compared to the price here at MIT. OCW was designed to
try to accommodate a range of bandwidth.
Most of the material on the site was designed to be accessible
on a 28-K modem.
It is sometimes simpler to give a university a copy
of OCW, which fits on a hard drive, rather than connect to the
OCW site. This is what we have done with the university in Tanzania.
It seems to me that the only way these learning communities
can work is if the faculty keeps a hands-off approach toward
them. Also, I am wondering how you will deal with the situation
a few years from now, when all the threads in these discussions
accumulate. The content will no longer be navigable to users.
I agree that the learning communities need to be self-sustaining.
It will be necessary to have various software tools that can
organize this material in a semi-automated system. This will
be a good area to research.
Do the videos have closed captioning or descriptive video? How
accessible to the vision and hearing impaired is the material
The site is very accessible for the vision-impaired. Screen
readers can read the content. We are currently working with
MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory
to develop algorithms and methods that will automatically convert
video into captions.
As a blind user, I was awed when I found the screen
reader, and I have recommended OCW to other blind students.
Kudos for making the site so accessible!
Will you use evaluations of the learning communities to improve
the online course sites? Also, it is hard to discuss math by
just asking questions. Is there any way of dealing with this?
Whenever we receive mail that is specific to a course, we forward
it to the faculty member. We haven’t realized the full
possibilities of the learning communities yet, since they have
only recently been implemented. In the future we will think
about how we can use the comments we receive.
There has been a movement toward using MathML, an XML-based
standard that has the potential to allow uniform language for
describing math in equations. The learning community forums
are restricted to expression in characters alone.
To what extent are interactive models, simulations, used on
There are a fair number of interactive tools on OCW. The second
semester curriculum for physics has an animation and simulation
to teach electricity and magnetism. We are also thinking about
having an open version of an experiment in a microelectronics
class. We have built an interface that is web-accessible, so
that anyone can operate the experiment from anywhere in the
world. We may build a physical copy of this experiment and make
an open version. This would allow students to use a semiconductor,
something most students do not get to use in their undergraduate
There are about 50-100 interactive tools. The video clips are
also great at capturing interaction in the classroom.
Are there currently any special tours on the site that introduce
users to features by theme? For example, a tour of the learning
communities, the video courses, etc.?
There are not any themed tours right now, but we are working
on a project to navigate the site in different ways, at a glance.
One such approach would be to link examples of the use of a
certain technique learned in a course. Users will be able to
see the ways the material they are using can be applied, all
in one place. There are a large number of interesting ways to
look at the material on OCW, other than just a course-centric
view. The future will bring further development of the OCW site.
compiled by Marie Y. Thibault
by Brad Seawell