OpenCourseWare: Simple Idea, Profound Implications
On April 4, 2001, Charles Vest, president of the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, announced the beginning of the OpenCourseWare project (OCW) in a
press conference that was simultaneously Web cast. “As president of MIT,
I have come to expect top-level innovative and intellectually entrepreneurial
ideas from the MIT community.... I have to tell you that we went into this expecting
that something creative, cutting-edge, and challenging would emerge. And, frankly,
we also expected that it would be something based on a revenue-producing model—a
project or program that took into account the power of the Internet and its
potential for new applications in education. OpenCourseWare is not exactly what
I had expected.” Frankly, neither did anyone else.
What is OCW?
Since its inception, OCW has been misunderstood. The academic world has seen
one or another online degree program or commercial venture stake a claim to
its part of cyberspace. OCW is not about online degree programs. It isn’t
even about online courses for which students can audit or enroll. That’s
what it isn’t. What, then, is it?
OCW is a process—not a set of classes. This process is intended to make
the MIT course materials that are used in the teaching of almost all undergraduate
and graduate subjects available free online to any user in the world.
The goal of OCW is to provide the content that supports an MIT education. Ultimately,
the OCW Web resource will host the materials for more than 2,000 classes taught
at MIT, presented with a coherent interface that will include sophisticated
search algorithms to explore additional concepts, pedagogies, and related attributes
across the site as well as within a course.
The OCW announcement elicited varied reactions. Many wondered how this effort
differs from any number of instances where universities have made their course
Web sites available to the public, all or in part. The more cynical expressed
admiration for the public relations success. The announcement made the front
page of the New York Times, but skeptics asserted that OCW would be nothing
more than a traditional Web site dressed up with a new acronym. But the elegance
is in its simplicity. The closer one looks, the more one sees.
Still, an important and often overlooked implication of OCW is another aspect
of what it is not—it is emphatically not an MIT education. This has been
emphasized by Vest and other spokespeople for the initiative, but it bears repeating.
It is the firm tenant of OCW that the core of an MIT education is the interaction
between students and faculty in an environment that invites and supports inquiry
and questioning. OCW makes no claim or effort to encapsulate this on the Web.
Even given the support generally garnered on the MIT campus, some obstacles
must be overcome if OCW is to be successfully implemented and maintained.
· Time. The prospect of putting up the content of some 2,000 courses in
the next 10 years is daunting for anyone, even on a campus like MIT. This is
all the more challenging given the one thing faculty members have least available—time.
The enthusiasm and commitment toward the project is tempered by the uncertainty
surrounding the level of effort faculty will be required to invest to make content
suitable for OCW.
Teaching and research remain prime concerns for faculty throughout institutions
of higher education nationwide and abroad. A project like this must not add
significantly to the workload of already challenged faculty members, nor can
it detract from their current commitments. A research question for such an effort
is therefore: How can we assemble and distribute content with minimal faculty
· Reusable learning objects. A corollary to the time-constrained faculty
member is the requirement that learning objects created for a course must be
found suitable for other purposes, such as OCW. Faculty members cannot be expected
to create content twice, once for teaching and again for presentation to the
broader academic public. Thus, a second objective for the project is understanding
the requirements for transformation of learning objects from their in-class
instructional use to their representation as meaningful content for those interacting
out of the context of the faculty/student/course/setting intersection.
· Production process. Putting together a Web site for a course is, despite
current technologies to assist site designers, a significant effort. Currently,
trade-offs are made in order to achieve some degree of scalability in the various
systems used to aggregate content for teaching. For example, learning management
systems may provide a limited suite of templates with form-based content uploading,
designed to distribute the labor required to ingest and position the content
within the site’s framework. The trade-off is often restricted pedagogical
flexibility and relatively basic, cosmetic design choices for the reduction
in the effort needed to auto-generate large numbers of course “shells.”
A project such as that undertaken by OCW must incorporate new opportunities
to achieve scalability for content development while not entirely sacrificing
individuality in site design.
Courseware as Product
The higher education community has become subject to a new force in recent
years. The trend has been referred to as “education as a good” (Schlais,
2001), describing the increasing trend toward the privatization of knowledge.
Colleges and universities, in his view, are becoming more and more like vendors
to students, who perceive themselves as customers of college education services.
During the bloom of online distance education—curtailed only recently by
the general economic recession—competition for students among universities
led to increasing costs. Revenues were sought to replace declining public subsidies
and to support competitive consumerism. Not-for-profit subsidiaries of traditional
colleges, for-profit private universities, and corporations emerged, seeking
to gain a larger share in what seemed an infinitely expanding demand for anywhere,
The privatization of knowledge has many manifestations. One is the frightening
rise in the cost of scholarly journals. The pattern is familiar to anyone working
in the academy. Schlais describes the conundrum like this: “A faculty member
spends years of her life learning, researching, thinking, organizing, teaching,
and writing. Her university invests substantially during this process. She publishes
the fruits of her labor in a highly respected journal. And finally her library
buys a subscription to the journal, sometimes costing in the tens of thousands
of dollars per year.” Something is amiss, and our library colleagues have
been painfully aware of it for years.
Copyright and legal interpretations deepen the concern. According to the World
Trade Organization (WTO), and the General Agreement on Trade in Services, education
is an international commodity. In the United States, compliance with the WTO
agreements was accomplished in part by the enactment of the Digital Millennium
Copyright Act in 1998. Jessica Litman described the relevance of these changes
in her book, Digital Copyright: Protecting Intellectual Property on the Internet
“1. The use of digital works, including viewing, reading, listening, transporting,
etc., requires a reproduction of the original of the work in a computer’s
2. Copyright statutes give clear and exclusive control over reproduction (as
defined above) to the copyright holder.
3. For each use of the copyrighted material, that is, each viewing, listening,
transfer, the user needs to have the statutory privilege of the copyright holder.”
Faculty members at MIT, as well as other universities, are concerned that their
intellectual property may be locked away from their peers, as well as potential
students, behind proprietary barriers. Participating in OCW is a proactive statement
that “reflects the idea that, as scholars and teachers, we wish to share
freely the knowledge we generate through our research and teaching” (Miyagawa,
2001). As Vest noted, “OpenCourseWare looks counterintuitive in a market-driven
A New Model of Scholarly Sharing?
OCW is often thought of as the educational content equivalent to the open source
software movement. The analogy is appealing and reflective of many, but not
all, of its goals. Taking a closer look at what constitutes open source software
The open source definition from the Open Source Initiative describes the distribution
of software code that adheres to certain licensing criteria (see box, page 14).
The application of these principles has one intent—to allow people to read,
improve, adapt or modify, fix, redistribute, and use open source software. The
definition recognizes that improvements to complex code are made exponentially
faster if more people can look at it and lend their intellectual input toward
making it work better.
OCW has a similar intent. As put forth in MIT News (2001), “it expresses
our belief in the way education can be advanced—by constantly widening
access to information and by inspiring others to participate.” But it is
not the equivalent of a course. Rather, it is a window into what one institution,
and what one faculty member, has chosen to convey. It is that person’s
view of the necessary material for learning a defined subset of a discipline
at a particular level of sophistication (freshman or sophomore level, for example,
or perhaps the fourth course in a sequence). In one sense it is only that, but
in another sense, it is really much more.
OCW embraces characteristics of another major project in higher education,
the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. A scholarship
of teaching involves responsible stewardship, characterized by constantly scrutinizing
the quality of one’s work, subjecting that work to the critical examination
of others, and sharing it with others in one’s professional community.
As Lee Shulman, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of
Teaching, clearly puts it, “Scholarship entails a responsibility to pass
on what you have found, what you have invented, [and] what you have created
[to] the other members of your community, assuming that they will do the same
The presentation of material in OCW is designed to encourage exploration. One
can discover interesting and useful associations between and among elements
within the OCW collection of course content. The project relates concepts not
only within a course, but across courses within a discipline of study—for
example, by using metadata tagging. Deciding how to achieve this goal is a daunting
task. Skeptics will scoff, questioning if the goal is achievable and if it is
even anything new. There will be challenges. Some faculty will question the
trade-off in potential earnings, based on their perception of the value proposition
in their intellectual work. The time investment and production efficiencies
that must be achieved to unburden faculty contributing to OCW remain to be developed,
let alone demonstrated.
Sometimes the simplest ideas are the most compelling. What if the processes
that underlie this effort were undertaken not just at MIT, but at other universities,
disciplinary societies, and libraries around the globe? This expresses a belief
in the way education can be advanced—by constantly widening access to information
Minimum Open Source
Excerpted from the open source definition by the Open Source Initiative
- There is free redistribution
of licensed code for open software, whether or not it is included in
a larger package from multiple sources.
- The source code
and derived works are allowed and distributed under the same terms as
the license of the original software.
- The open source
license must guarantee that the source be readily available, but may
require that it be distributed as a pristine base source plus patches.
against any person or group of persons is not allowed.
- Restricting anyone
from making use of the program in a specific field of endeavor is not
- Additional licensing
agreements may not close access to the distributed software.
- Open software
licensing rights are not restricted to a particular distribution; that
is, any piece of open software code must remain faithful to these requirements
even if it is included among other proprietary code.
- The license must
not restrict other software distributed with the open software; that
is, just by including open software with proprietary code, it is not
implied that the proprietary code adopt these guidelines.
Applying Open Source
Principles, Practices, and Tools to Teaching, Learning, Professional Development,
Carnegie Academy for
the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.
Hutchings, P. "Approaching
the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning." Introduction to Opening
Lines: Approaches to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.
Ishii, K., and B.
Lutterbeck. Unexploited Resources of Online Education for Democracy: Why
the Future Should Belong to OpenCourseWare.
Litman, J. Digital
Copyright: Protecting Intellectual Property on the Internet. Amherst,
N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2001.
“MIT to make
nearly all course materials available free on the World Wide Web.”
MIT News, April 4, 2001.
Miyagawa, S. “MIT
OpenCourseWare: Faculty Views.”
Overview: The TRIPS
Schlais, H. “Journal
Costs and Electronic Resources: Perspectives on the Future.” Teaching
with Technology Today, Vol. 7, No. 10, June 22, 2001.
Shulman, L. “Inventing
the Future.” Conclusion to Opening Lines: Approaches to the Scholarship
of Teaching and Learning.
nd inspiring others to participate.