The next step: Open-sourcing education

April 16, 2008 — by Vijay Chetty

This story originally appeared in the April 4th issue of The Saratoga Falcon.

When it comes to having access to an advanced education, there is a big difference between an engineering student at a premier university and a bicycle repairman in a rural village in China. Now, thanks to a rapidly growing program called Open CourseWare–popularized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology–that repairman in Luoyang, China, can, with a little bit of initiative, learn the same material as the student and give himself the technical skills necessary for job advancement.

Open CourseWare provides online course materials, such as lecture notes, problem sets, labs, videos and demonstrations, completely free of charge. According to USA Today, more than 150 universities have adopted the Open CourseWare program, but the MIT website is still the most developed. Started in 2002, it has had 52 million visitors worldwide, including students, educators and self-learners. By November 2007, materials from all 1800 courses spanning 33 disciplines had been published on the site, and many of these materials have now been translated into other languages. The most impressive aspect of the program is its simple user interface. Students simply select a department, a course, the desired material and then the specific lecture – down to the level of individual lecture phrases.

MIT took a serious risk with this program. In the past, universities and institutions made materials available only for a per-item or subscription price. By implementing Open CourseWare, MIT essentially packaged an MIT education – sans the professors, environment, lab experience and face-to-face contact – to anybody interested in staying up-to-date on developments, enhancing their curriculum or even designing their entire education around Open Courseware. Thus, MIT administrators risked diluting the value of an MIT education and missing out on profits.

While MIT may be losing out financially, its stature has increased greatly due to its avant-garde belief in disseminating knowledge. Institutions and universities, which controlled advanced content, have always kept their knowledge locked up in the ivory tower, but MIT effectively democratized a college education, giving anybody anywhere, with a little bit of initiative and a modem, the ability to learn entire fields.

Some people argue over copyright and censorship issues, but those problems can be skillfully sidestepped. MIT essentially places trust in its users to credit material to the institution. A more serious issue is the possibility that students may fake MIT degrees after using Open CourseWare; however, the rate of incidence is so low that the benefits still far outweigh the costs.

This is a valuable step in the direction of free movement of knowledge essential for advancement in any field. After all, a researcher on the other side of the globe would not know about recent advancements in their field if MIT and other universities controlled cutting-edge material. While users will not be able to engage in the discussion environment and guided learning that truly solidify knowledge, MIT has come incredibly close to such a state through its pioneering program. It will, in fact, cause many college teachers to focus less on conveying basic knowledge and more on advanced concepts and the process of discovery.

Additionally, MIT has added to the program by creating a website geared specifically toward high schools.
MIT has clearly defined social goals through its work with Open Courseware, and other universities should follow its successful lead. Thanks to Open CourseWare, an inquisitive inventor in Indonesia, a university class in rural India, a materials engineer in a Russian factory, a high school teacher in California, a factory team in Mexico and a repairman in China can all have access to the same advanced material as that of a university student. That is no small feat in this age of globalization.

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