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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.

Competing Demands

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 involvement?

· 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, anytime learning.

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 (2001):

“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 memory.
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 world.” Indeed.

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 might help.

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 for you.”

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 a

Minimum Open Source Licensing Criteria"

Excerpted from the open source definition by the Open Source Initiative (

  1. There is free redistribution of licensed code for open software, whether or not it is included in a larger package from multiple sources.
  2. The source code is available.
  3. Modifications and derived works are allowed and distributed under the same terms as the license of the original software.
  4. 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.
  5. Discrimination against any person or group of persons is not allowed.
  6. Restricting anyone from making use of the program in a specific field of endeavor is not allowed.
  7. Additional licensing agreements may not close access to the distributed software.
  8. 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.
  9. 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, and Planning.

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 Agreement.

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.

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