MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XVIII No. 3
January / February 2006
Life Sciences at MIT:
A History and Perspective
Reflecting on the Report of the
Task Force on Medical Care
Promotion and Tenure for
Interdisciplinary Junior Faculty
Reviewing the Committee on
Graduate School Programs
The Challenge and Rewards of Faculty-Student Interactions in the Residence Halls
Troubling whistle-blower article
Regarding the Report of the Task Force on Medical Care for the MIT Community
Valentine: Faith; Valentine: Invention
Mildred Dresselhaus
OpenCourseWare at Home
MIT Retirement Plans: A Brief Summary
MIT Rated 7th in Latest U.S. News Ranking
% of MIT Constituencies Using OCW
OCW Impact on the MIT Community
Printable Version

OpenCourseWare at Home
While OCW idea takes off globally, project provides
tangible benefits to the MIT community

Shigeru Miyagawa

In November 2005, I had the privilege of representing MIT and the OpenCourseWare project at the United Nations’ World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis. More than 10,000 people from 120 countries attended the WSIS event, including more than 100 who participated in the parallel event on OpenCourseWare (OCW), which I co-hosted with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the United Nations University.

What I saw at that meeting was the enormous momentum that has developed around the notion of openness and educational sharing. It has truly become a global movement. One UNESCO official told me that with OCW, “MIT is a trailblazer,” and that MIT had set the world in motion with “the OpenCourseWare movement… Nothing can stop it now.”

The possibilities of OCW are truly global in nature, but after returning to MIT from Tunis, I was careful to remind myself that we should not forget the benefits that OCW is providing to the MIT community on many levels as well. From students to faculty, the benefits and possibilities of OCW are starting to take shape across the Institute.

As a member of the OCW Faculty Advisory Committee, I have had the opportunity to read through the data (such as that in the M.I.T. Numbers section of this Faculty Newsletter [see links on the left]) and case studies that OCW has gathered that demonstrate the value of this project here at MIT. The following are just three of the case studies documenting the benefits of OCW to the MIT community.

Finding a global audience

Professor Charles Stewart III, head of the MIT Department of Political Science and a colleague of mine on the SHASS faculty, is a specialist in the fields of American politics and behavior, political institutions, and research methodology.

incremental cost over budget
OpenCourseWare Site Traffic Since October 2003 (click on image to enlarge)

Stewart, who has long been a proponent of using technology as a teaching aid, and also of the open access to ideas, was an early supporter of the OCW concept. “I think that OCW serves the higher purposes that have been touted for it,” Stewart told OCW recently. “It really does provide opportunities for people around the world to see what we do at MIT, and perhaps learn from it. There are heartwarming stories of faculty, out in the middle of nowhere, who somehow get to the OCW site, discover our stuff, and use it to teach classes.”

But in addition to these global benefits, Stewart has found that OCW can provide important exposure for faculty from Course 17, and across the Institute. “I think the opportunities include getting your name associated with a particular subject area,” Stewart elaborated. “After all, for faculty at MIT, one of the things you’re supposed to do is establish that you are one of the world’s preeminent experts in a particular field. And OCW is a way of highlighting what you do, and how you do it. It gives you a broader audience than just purely an academic audience.”

In the early days of OCW, Stewart often found that he had to defend OCW to peers who were uncertain about what all this public exposure might mean. More recently, however, he has found most members of Course 17 are eager to participate. “These days, all I really do to promote OCW is encourage them to participate whenever there’s a call for new material,” Stewart said.

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Making the connections explicit

Professor Karen Willcox has been teaching a required subject in aeronautics and astronautics to juniors since 2001. Willcox told OCW that, in her first year at MIT, she was surprised to find that many of her students were less proficient in math than she expected.

“I really had the impression coming here that all the students would just be fantastic in math,” Willcox explained. “When I realized this was not the case, I started talking to math faculty and I realized that there was a disconnect between the math department and the engineering departments. For example, even though I relied heavily on material from Course 18.03, I had no idea how it was being taught – or for that matter, what was being taught.”

Once Willcox better understood the relationships between her course and related math subjects, she said, she began working with Professor Haynes Miller of the Department of Mathematics to make those connections clear to her students. “The next step was to make these links explicit for the students,” she explained. “So in my first lecture, I’d say, ‘This is what we’re talking about today in aeronautics, and this is directly related to what you learned in this math class.’ And then with the pointer, I could show them the OCW Website, and the lecture, and the problem sets related to what we’re learning.”

Willcox said she has already seen improvements among her students, but in her opinion, the benefits of encouraging students to “flashback” to OCW are only the beginning.

“Down the line, I hope to bring more of the technology into the classroom, so that while I am giving a lecture, I will be able to give them a flashback to something they had seen in a previous course – a visual reminder up on the screen of something from their math class,” she said. “My sense is that this will really enable us to create better linkages, and to fully integrate the learning experience. Our students will have the opportunity to look broadly across their education, and that will have enormous implications for learning.”

The intangibles of an MIT education

MIT junior Aron Walker is an environmental science and chemical engineering major from San Francisco. Though he had never experienced OCW before coming to the Institute, Walker heard about the site from a friend soon after his arrival in Cambridge, and quickly found that it was a valuable resource.

“As far as a practical use,” Walker told the OCW staff in the fall, “MIT students visit OCW to get a sense of what a class is like. Yes, MIT also has course evaluations, which are compiled, quantified, and put online – and people definitely use those. But the evaluations don’t offer much information about the actual content of the class. It’s more, ‘What have my peers thought of this professor?’ The OCW course sites are more detailed because they include the actual course material.”

Students also visit the OCW site to find materials for review purposes, Walker explained. “I think students also use it if they’re taking some class one year, and they want more practice doing things.”

But for Walker, the most valuable aspect of OCW is that the Website calls even more attention to the unique aspects of an MIT education. “For me, the biggest advantage of OpenCourseWare is that it brings into focus the things that you can only find here at MIT, and not on the Web,” he said. “It moves the educational focus back toward the intangibles, rather than just, ‘Here’s a sheet of paper with some problems on it, and I want you to do them.’ There’s a very strong community of ideas here, and a lot of energy in that community. That’s what really sets MIT apart.”

With 1259 courses now available at, OCW continues to evolve as a resource for educators and learners abroad – and more and more, for the unique MIT community of educators and learners, as well.

These case studies, and the data on the back of this newsletter, provide a glimpse into the potentialities of the OCW resource. For more information, I encourage you to contact Jon Paul Potts, OCW communications manager, at or 617-452-3621.

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