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Fire Hoses and Lawn Sprinklers

Gayle C. Willman

If getting an education at MIT is like taking a sip of water from a fire hose, perhaps MIT's OpenCourseWare (OCW) concept can be compared to a lawn sprinkler – at its finest, as thought-provoking as Feynman's lawn sprinkler (see http://www.varatek.com/scott/feynman_problems.html).

OpenCourseWare will make MIT course materials available on the Web, free of charge, to any user anywhere in the world. Syllabi, lecture notes, course outlines, reading lists, and assignments for each course, as well as other types of content will be provided.

Described by Faculty Chair Professor Steven R. Lerman as, "... a model for what a top-flight institution constructs for its education programs..." OpenCourseWare has inspired applause, debate, and a good deal of discussion. The intent of this article is to present a variety of perspectives. Faculty comments are encouraged, and will be published in a future issue of the Faculty Newsletter.

At present, MIT is undertaking a number of ambitious projects with the potential to significantly impact education through the use of new technologies. In this context, a campus study group was charged with devising a project that reached beyond MIT campus classrooms. Composed of faculty, staff, and consultants, the group was chartered by MIT's Council on Educational Technology. The OpenCourseWare concept is the result.

The OpenCourseWare project will begin as a large-scale pilot program over the next two years, and will include the design of the software and services needed to support such a large endeavor. Protocols will be devised to monitor and assess OCW's utilization by faculty and students at MIT, and throughout the world. By the end of the two-year period, materials for more than 500 courses are planned to be available on the MIT OpenCourseWare site.

Although it has been reported that most of the MIT's faculty members support the plan, some do have reservations.

Professor of Civil Engineering John Williams expressed concerns about the quality of the Web-based resource and its reflection on MIT. "We're trying to serve too many purposes. There is no chance of stability," he said. "We're going to give away our most valuable asset for what I consider to be a half-baked business plan."

"We came away quite puzzled as to what the OCW would really achieve," said Professor of Architecture William L. Porter. Porter described the Web-based resource as an "elaborate catalog" that could neither accurately represent MIT teaching to the world nor encourage dynamic use of Web-based teaching.

Professor Woodie Flowers, Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering, posed the question, "If I were to offer you $100 million in venture funds to improve MIT education while making a contribution to world education, and ask only that you have a sustainable operation after 10 years, what would you do?" In a series of futuristic scenarios he illustrated several concerns, among them:

September, 2003
A conversation between two faculty members at a famous university:
Joan: I just tried to find an e-text for my course from the MIT site. I was amazed. That site is a mile wide and an inch deep. When you ask if a particular set of materials will be available next spring, they say, "Sorry, the faculty members make their own decisions about what they e-publish on our site." They don't even support autohomework and shared quiz evaluations. How could I use that stuff? You were there two years ago. What are they doing? ..."
Al: I have never understood it…. There were a bunch of faculty who wanted MIT to focus serious money on e-texts, but they would not spend their own money. They found a foundation to sponsor a monster project ... They actually paid faculty to post stuff, even if it was marginally organized and relevant only to a small group on campus. The faculty teaching commodity courses made deals with outside publishers - businesses that had marketing departments and supported customers. I think they will have to reinvent the whole idea. Not clear, however, whether they will ever catch up with the schools that started with a real strategic plan.

At this stage, the specifics of the plan have not been fully determined and it will still be two years before a pilot system is fully operational.

So, OpenCourseWare evolutionary, or revolutionary? How does OpenCourseWare differ from MIT course sites that already exist? It may come as a surprise to some that one bit of "inside knowledge," shared on public discussion boards, is the URL path to MIT course materials for anyone who knows a course number. This variation on "open course ware" exists today. Motivated learners are already taking advantage of the materials.

One wrote, "I have been teaching myself computer science for a while now, using the Internet as my source for material. I have usually stuck to different universities' courseware that just happened to be found by a quick google search. And now this! Hurrah for me!"

Many other questions have been raised, both inside and outside the Institute. Within MIT, a significant one centers on MIT students. How will MIT's students respond?

An MIT student remarked, "...you can't even fathom how much work it is for most of these classes and how much most students get out of question/answer sessions in recitation. These are things that cannot be replicated on the Web, and no amount of openly available course material can change that."

President Vest has said from the beginning, "...Let me be clear: We are not providing an MIT education on the Web. We are providing our core materials that are the infrastructure that undergirds an MIT education... the interactions between faculty and students are the real core of learning.…"

Outside MIT, the press was quick to label OCW as a threat to fee-based e-learning courses and content.

Eduventures.com, a leading advisor to for-profit e-learning companies, responded, "[MIT's] dissemination of such high caliber educational content is important, but it lacks in value because it doesn't incorporate interaction to transform that content into a learning experience..." adding, "MIT's move to improve the availability of content isn't a threat to e-learning, but a call to arms to change the nature of elite universities and their control of academic knowledge in the Internet age."

Prospective users of the system, on Internet discussion boards, were vocal. When one critic said, "...any idiot can buy a textbook," the remark was was quickly countered by, "...while pursuing my degree I discovered that a good prof was the single greatest factor in the amount of knowledge I gained from a course..." and, "You also need a good student body. With an apathetic class, a good Prof can do next to nothing."

"Dissemination of information (and teaching materials) is the real purpose of the Web and the ability to conduct real research through a site such as MIT's will only serve to make things better. Personally I'm extremely excited about the prospects of this. Obviously, not everyone can afford an MIT education (and no amount of reading off the Web could actually sub for an MIT course I'd assume) but it still gives underprivileged and even 'not so highly privileged' individuals the chance to learn outside their normal means. Hopefully other universities will eventually follow suit, because this can only be the beginning. Thank you MIT."


Anticipated outcomes

A number of outcomes have been described. Among the benefits, a positive effect on education. Professor Harold Abelson, the Class of 1922 Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and MacVicar Teaching Fellow, suggests that OpenCourseWare may facilitate innovations in teaching. "OpenCourseWare stimulates real reflection on what we're doing in the classroom. If my students get all their raw materials on the Web, what am I doing in class? ...OpenCourseWare will enable faculty to concentrate on using classroom or lab time to enhance learning," he said.

Another perspective was introduced by Dick K.P. Yue, associate dean of the School of Engineering and Professor of Ocean Engineering. He based his vision of OpenCourseWare on his own experience as a boy in Hong Kong who was inspired by an MIT textbook his father gave him. "MIT will miss its goal if it reaches just the students within its walls and not in the larger world," he said.

The possibility of reaching students beyond MIT was expressed by a student at another university, "This project is not about under-mining MIT ...It's not about giving professors extra workload. It is, however, about a 15-year-old who has above average intelligence getting free access to professional materials that match his ability from anywhere in the world."

Other anticipated benefits include:

Other anticipated outcomes are voiced as concerns. Is this a good use of MIT professors' time? Will there be consistent quality from one Website to another within the OpenCourseWare system? Can intellectual property issues be resolved?


Putting OCW in Perspective

With over 40 years' experience with educational technology, MIT has had a history of crossing the line between evolutionary and revolutionary at key points in its implementation of new approaches to education.

In the 1960s, MIT engineering faculty members radically altered curricula and authored textbooks to bring computing and modern tools of science and mathematics into the foundations of the engineering curriculum. As engineering graduates joined other faculties, they spread the new approach to engineering education within other institutions.

In the 1990s MIT, in alliance with the two leading research universities in Singapore – the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University – created and implemented a global model for long-distance engineering education and collaborative research. The Singapore-MIT Alliance (SMA) became the first organization in the world to offer advanced degree programs over Internet2. Today, SMA students in Singapore fully participate in live MIT classes, course-related activities, and research collaborations with their counterparts at MIT – though they are physically located 12 time zones away.

To return to the basic question: Will OpenCourseWare be evolutionary or revolutionary? In many important ways, given that their involvement will be voluntary, this question can only be answered by MIT's faculty.

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