MIT OpenCourseWare: A Decade of Global Benefit
Among the many milestones we will celebrate during the Institute’s 150th anniversary next year, I am particularly proud of the tenth anniversary of MIT OpenCourseWare, the start of which was announced on the front page of The New York Times on April 4, 2001. Since the announcement, MIT has published materials from more than 2,000 courses, presenting the undergraduate and graduate curricula from all 33 of MIT’s academic departments through the OCW Website (ocw.mit.edu). By the anniversary, these materials will have been visited more than 100 million times by an estimated 70 million individuals from nearly every country. More than 200 other universities around the world have joined MIT in publishing their course materials freely and openly, and have collectively published materials from more than 13,000 courses. This dynamic community, the OpenCourseWare Consortium, will gather on the MIT campus shortly after the anniversary to look back at the movement’s first 10 years and look forward to the next decade.
As a member of the original committee that proposed the program, I can say with great confidence and pride that OCW has exceeded every expectation we had at the start. By any measure – number of courses, number of visitors, amount of public attention, benefit to MIT faculty and students – the site has surpassed the vision developed by the Lifelong Learning Committee that met in the summer of 2000.
I am most proud, however, that MIT OpenCourseWare is truly an achievement of the entire MIT community, a site that shares the voluntary contributions from nearly 1,400 MIT professors and teaching staff, and a similar number of MIT students. It is a collective act of intellectual philanthropy that truly reflects the MIT community’s commitment to the dissemination of knowledge for the public good.
Over the past 10 years, OCW has moved from a bold experiment to an integral part of MIT. Currently, more than 93% of undergraduates and 82% of graduate students say they use the site as a supplement to their course material or to study beyond their formal coursework. Eighty-four percent of faculty members use the site for advising, course materials creation, and personal learning. More than half of MIT alumni report using the site as well, keeping up with developments in their field, revisiting the materials of favorite professors, and exploring new topics. Open publication of course materials has become an ordinary element of scholarly activity for MIT faculty, and the ubiquitous availability of that curriculum to our own community has become the everyday reality of teaching and learning at MIT.
Perhaps because of this transition of OCW from experiment to regular scholarly activity, it is easy to lose sight of the transformative effects it has had on formal and informal learning around the world. As a member of the OCW Faculty Advisory Committee, I have the opportunity to hear regularly from the OCW staff regarding the impact of OCW worldwide. While the raw numbers mentioned above are striking by themselves, it is the stories of OCW use from around the world, the real instances of how the site is changing lives, that remind me most powerfully of why MIT decided to undertake OCW in the first place. As we approach the tenth anniversary of OCW’s announcement and the OCW Consortium meeting that will follow, I have asked the OCW team to share OCW stories in the coming months through a series of articles on the MITnews site.
Just one of the stories of OCW use that has moved me recently is that of Jean-Ronel Noel and Alex Georges, entrepreneurs working to bring renewable energy to communities throughout Haiti. Through their company, Enersa (enersahaiti.com/) they planned to create solar panels to serve the needs of their country, but in their research and development process, they required guidance in electrical engineering. Noel found the materials he needed on MIT OpenCourseWare. “I was able to use the OpenCourseWare to learn the principles of integrated circuits. I found out that I could use an existing integrated circuit to make things more efficient, and I wanted an explanation about how it worked. I was able to learn this through the MIT OpenCourseWare.”
Enersa’s work has been supported by the non-profit Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group (AIDG). AIDG Executive Director Peter Haas describes how Noel and Georges leveraged OCW to build a successful business. “I was immediately impressed by [Noel], an engineer who taught himself the electrical engineering he was missing by using the free online engineering resources of MIT OpenCourseWare,” said Haas. “Also, after seeing the dramatic bootstrapping JR and Alex had done in starting their business, it was clear this team was different.” [www.aidg.org/incubation/enersa.htm.]
Jean-Ronel Noel, a mechanical engineer by training, describes why OCW was his resource of choice: “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. MIT OpenCourseWare was different because it explained things step by step. Using the OpenCourseWare saved us a lot of time and money.”
Through Enersa, OCW touches lives well beyond Noel’s and Georges’. Enersa employs 18 full-time solar technicians drawn from the communities they serve, and Enersa’s products affect the daily lives of thousands of Haitians. Enersa produces residential and commercial solar systems and solar chargers for smaller items such as cell phones and lamps, but their signature product is a solar street lamp. In just two and a half years, they have installed more than 500 of these in 58 cities and remote villages in Haiti. Enersa’s activities were briefly interrupted by the January 12, 2010 earthquake, but with an emergency loan from AIDG, they are back to full operation.
Enersa is just one example of the hundreds of uses of MIT course materials the OCW team has documented in the past 10 years.
Whether it is the educator in Australia who is able to quickly prepare to teach computer graphics despite a five-year hiatus from the subject, the homeschooling mother in the United States who finds the educational resources she needs to provide a quality education for her children, or the student in Nigeria who brings MIT curriculum into his classroom for the benefit of his fellow students, these stories highlight the tremendous benefit generated by the intellectual philanthropy of the MIT community.
Although MIT OpenCourseWare still faces significant financial challenges – which have been much discussed in the past year – it is also important that the MIT community remember the millions of lives that have been touched by this project.
I invite you to read more of these stories on the OCW site ocw.mit.edu/about/ocw-stories, and in the upcoming series of articles, and to remember in this year of celebration the global benefits generated by your simple acts of sharing.