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Open Access to World-Class Knowledge

MIT OpenCourseWare Shares Lessons from Pilot Project.

A student in Johannesburg, South Africa. An educator in Wiesbaden, Germany. Ethiopian refugees trying to finish an engineering education cut short by civil war. These are just a few of the people who have tapped the potential of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's OpenCourseWare (OCW) project, a two-year-old effort to make available original course materials from all five of MIT's schools to students around the world.

Started by an MIT faculty committee charged with providing guidance on how MIT should position itself in the distance and eLearning environment, the OCW project supports the university's interest in contributing to the "shared intellectual commons" in higher education. "OpenCourseWare combines two things: traditional openness and outreach, and the democratizing influence of American education, with the ability of the Web to make vast amounts of information instantly available," says MIT President Charles M. Vest.

On Sept. 30, 2002, the pilot site of OCW was launched. It offers users the opportunity to see and use course materials from 50 MIT subjects, representing 20 individual academic disciplines and MIT's schools of Architecture, Science, Engineering, the Sloan School of Management, and the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.

In the first week on the Web, the OCW site received more than 13 million visits from users, about 52 percent from outside of the United States. The OCW team also processed more than 2,000 e-mails in those first days, more than 75 percent of them supportive of the project. The remaining 25 percent were a mix of technical questions, inquiries about specific course offerings, and questions about content. Less than 2 percent of those e-mails were negative.

Govert van Drimmelen, a university student in Johannesburg, South Africa, found the video lectures of MIT Professor Gil Strang, in Course 18.06: Linear Algebra, compelling. "I have watched some of the video lectures from mathematics course 18.06. The lectures are wonderful and having these available over the Internet from South Africa is a great privilege," Van Drimmelen wrote the OCW team by e-mail. "Please continue with this excellent project and accept my sincere thanks for the efforts. Making the quality education of MIT more broadly available will be a valued contribution to global education."

Dorothee Gaile, an educator and trainer of teachers in Wiesbaden, Germany, wrote that as OCW continued to add more subjects, it would become a remarkable resource for educators around the world. "As a teacher of English at both high school and University of Applied Science level in Germany, I very much appreciate having free access to the tremendous amount of knowledge MIT is currently putting on the Web. Congratulations on this idea and a warm thank you."

And Timothy Ch'e, a volunteer with an organization called Project Detour in Africa, immediately recognized OCW's potential in developing countries: "I recently spent time with a group of Ethiopian refugees, living in Kenya, who will benefit greatly from this initiative. They are students in Project Detour, an effort initiated to encourage their continuing education while living in a country where they are not granted access to the educational system. Many are Ethiopian-trained engineers, whose academic pursuits were cut short by political turmoil. Just thought you might appreciate another example of how this initiative will benefit the world's community of knowledge seekers."

In people like these, OCW found its intended audience—educators from around the world who can adapt the course materials and learning objects embedded in online lecture notes into their own pedagogy, and self-learners who will be able to draw on the materials for self-study or supplementary use.

"I read about your initiative in the NY Times online and have to say this is one of the most exciting applications of the Internet to date," wrote Charles Bello. Based in Nigeria, Bello is the Web master for, an African Web portal. "I look forward to taking advantage of this opportunity to ‘take a dip' in MIT's enormous reservoir of human intellect."

Building a Sustainable Platform
For the pilot phase, the pages were built using what Cecilia d'Oliveira, OCW's Technology Director, calls "brute-force HTML." Using Web content editors such as Macromedia Inc.'s DreamWeaver, a team of programmers from MIT and consulting firm Sapient Corp. built and designed the first 32 subjects. Over the course of summer 2002, templates were developed, sign-off was secured from faculty, and the site was prepared for the pilot release.

With course materials from 18 more subjects added to the site in December 2002, the total number of HTML pages supporting the initial 50 subjects rose to more than 2,000, together with more than 10,000 supporting files including PDFs of lecture notes, images, and video simulations.

The production model used for the pilot is not scalable for what by 2007 is estimated to be more than 2,000 individual MIT subjects published. Indeed, the OCW goals are not going to be achieved overnight: An aggressive timeline calls for about 500 subjects to be published by September 2003, and then 500 each year there after until the course materials from virtually all of MIT's subjects—undergraduate and graduate—are available to the world.

This first year of the OCW pilot is called the "Discover/ Build" mode, where the focus is on developing the technology, process, and organization to sustain OCW over the long term as an organization. Over the course of the next two years, the team hopes to be able to provide the entire curriculum track for certain MIT subject areas.

The project will take a big leap forward in April 2003 with the implementation of a content management system, which will manage the Web pages and embed learning objects. The content management system will also:

  • Create templates that support subject/section/component hierarchy
  • Manage content items (PDFs, images, simulations, tools), not just pages
  • Offer a workflow configurable by subject, parallel, and possibly nested, inherited
  • Tag content for search-ability
  • Maintain a robust, flexible, scalable technical architecture
  • Track copyright status and information on content items
  • Publish the OCW Web site

Tracking copyright status will be vital to the long-term success of OCW. During the pilot phase, we assembled a "SWAT team" of attorneys, graphic artists, researchers, and photo image specialists who were charged with obtaining copyright and intellectual property clearances for all the charts, quotes, images, and other items that were embedded in the lecture notes that MIT professors had been using for years.

It was an arduous process, but it has paid off. There has not been a single copyright or intellectual property infringement claim filed against OCW. The copyright permissions process was slow and labor-intensive, but I am confident we have developed a strong set of alternative strategies for acquisition of copyrighted content as the project moves toward publishing hundreds of courses in the coming years.

Reaction at Home
The faculty experience with OCW has been positive. Many professors who were once skeptics are now ready to participate. The project is particularly useful for courses involving intersecting disciplines. For example, while faculty often do not have time to explore the research of peers who might be right down the hall, one faculty member, Paul Sclavounos, has been contacted by another researcher at MIT who wants to explore cross-disciplinary work.

Where did that professor discover Sclavounos' work? On the site for Sclavounos' ocean engineering subject, Course 13.022: Surface Waves and their Interaction With Floating Bodies.

"This initiative is particularly valuable for courses covering emerging new areas of knowledge, as well as intersecting disciplines," says Jonathan A. King, an MIT professor of molecular biology. "Having spent many years developing a course on protein folding that served the needs of biochemists, chemists, chemical engineers, and computational biologists, I am delighted that this work will be made available to a far broader audience."

Shigeru Miyagawa, an MIT professor of linguistics, serves on the OCW Faculty Advisory Board and has two subjects on the current site: Course 24.946: Linguistic Theory and the Japanese Language and CMS.930/21F.034: Media, Education, and the Marketplace, a cross-listed course that explores a broad range of issues on new media and learning.

"OCW reflects the idea that, as scholars and teachers, we wish to share freely the knowledge we generate through our research and teaching," Miyagawa explains. "While MIT may be better known for our research, with OCW, we wish to showcase the quality of our teaching."

The OCW team hopes this will be the first of many open courseware initiatives. "This is about something bigger than MIT," states president Vest. "I hope other universities will see us as educational leaders in this arena, and we very much hope that OpenCourseWare will draw other universities to do the same. We would be delighted if—over time—we have a World Wide Web of knowledge that raises the quality of learning—and ultimately, the quality of life—around the globe."

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