massachusetts institute of technology

MIT 1990-2004: The Vest Years
Opening the Door to MIT OpenCourseWare Opening the Door to MIT OpenCourseWare

In 2002 MIT launched its OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiative —an unprecedented plan to use the World Wide Web to make the basic teaching materials for essentially all of our 2,000 subjects available to anyone, at any time and in any place, free of charge. At the time, almost every other institution viewed the Internet and the web as avenues for increasing their power, their span and their revenues by selling their courses at a distance. Noting MIT’s traditional connections with industry, and its business-oriented approach to intellectual property, many observers found it ironic that MIT would chart this free and open path.

How did this come about?

First —through leadership for innovation. Provost Bob Brown had charged a committee of faculty, staff, and alumni to define the role of information technology in MIT’s educational interactions beyond our campus. The committee considered revenue-generating possibilities, but found a conundrum: MIT is good at teaching the very best and brightest in an intense, rigorous, fast-paced, hands-on manner. It was not obvious that we could, or should, teach large numbers of different kinds of students distantly through information technology.

On a pro bono basis, the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton provided crucial findings to inform the Institute discussion. Succinctly summarized, their report said, high-level university distance education is complex, very competitive, and unlikely to make money.

Then one day Bob Brown walked into my office and said, “The committee is ready to report, but I want to find out if you’re prepared to receive their recommendation. They will recommend that we give all our basic teaching materials away on the web for free!”

Usually, I have to ponder large matters carefully for several days, but in a flash I understood the beauty and import of this remarkable recommendation. It resolved our conundrum and was absolutely consistent with MIT’s tradition of knowledge sharing and advancing education beyond our campus.

In the 1950s and 1960s MIT launched the “engineering science revolution,” moving away from “handbook” approaches to establish a strong scientific foundation for engineering analysis, synthesis, and practice. Armed with lecture notes, problem sets, examinations, experiments, and demonstrations, newly minted MIT PhDs spread this approach across the country wherever they taught. I had been a beneficiary myself as a graduate student at the University of Michigan.

So I saw the proposed use of the World Wide Web as a modern incarnation of the same phenomenon, only magnified many times over because the Web would allow us to make these concepts and approaches available anywhere in the world, instantly, and independent of any faculty connections to MIT.

But how to fund it?

I had breakfast in New York with Bill Bowen, the distinguished former president of Princeton University and current president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Bill is that rare combination, a deep thinker and an effective leader.

Over eggs, I said, “Bill, I want to tell you how MIT is thinking about using the Internet for education. Then I’ll have three questions. Do you think it’s a good idea? If you think it is a good idea, do you think foundations might fund it? And, if so, might The Mellon Foundation be interested?”

Normally when one approaches a foundation for support, the answer, if not “No,” is a request to send a letter. Then one might be asked to do a draft proposal with an approximate budget. Finally, one might be asked for a full-blown proposal, to which the ultimate response seems most likely to be rejection. In this case, Bill looked at me and said, “Don’t take this idea anywhere else. Let’s go to work to figure out how to fund it.”

There followed intense activity on the part of many people, including Bob Brown and Professors Hal Abelson, Steve Lerman, and Dick Yue to hone proposals and presentations. In the end, the Mellon Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation joined together to provide most of the financial support to develop OCW. Today, thanks to wholehearted commitment across the faculty, we have the materials for 701 subjects fully available with much more to come, under the superb directorship of Anne Margulies.

Response from around the world has been disarming in its enthusiasm.

I have never been so proud of MIT.

Essays by Charles M. Vest