September 29, 2003 5:49 PM PDT

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MIT tries free Web education

October 10, 2002
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is making its course materials available to the world for free download.

One year after the launch of its pilot program, MIT on Monday quietly published everything from class syllabuses to lecture videos for 500 courses through its OpenCourseWare initiative, an ambitious project it hopes will spark a Web-based revolution in the way universities share information.

"The real hope is that we start seeing many open courseware programs, with the net result of there being a critical mass of knowledge online for people everywhere," said Jon Paul Potts, communications manager for the program. "If that happened, people all over the world would be able to tap into reserves of knowledge from major large institutions around the globe."

More immediately, the program aims to distribute its course materials as a way to help teachers and students around the world gain access to the MIT faculty's methods and information. By that measure, the project has already succeeded, said Potts, who reports more than 10,000 e-mails from people who have used the service since its soft launch last year.

"There are no limits to MIT OCW's usefulness," Abdullah Haroon Rasheed, a student at the National University of Sciences and Technology in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, wrote in an e-mail to MIT. "It is the best knowledge database on the Web specifically for the students of the related subjects."

While Tuesday will mark the official launch of the initiative, the institute doesn't expect to publish materials for its full complement of classes until 2007, when it expects to have between 1,800 and 2,000 offerings.

In addition to a syllabus, lecture notes and course videos, institute faculty have published problem sets, past exams and completed student projects.

The idea for OpenCourseWare came from a faculty committee formed in 1999 to determine how MIT should use the Web in its teaching. The committee considered and discarded a number of revenue-generating ideas before settling on the free-for-all idea.

That idea owed much to the increasingly high-profile open-source software development model, made famous by Netscape Communication's 1998 decision to put its browser into open-source development. Under that model, anyone can access the underlying source code to a software title for free and licensed use, and developers are expected to contribute any improvements they make back to the project.

"OpenCourseWare faculty are hoping they can lead a sea change in the way people think about access and education, so that access is not limited by how much money you have, or where you happen to live," Potts said.

The project may be free to users, but it has cost millions to implement. The pilot program, which officially began in April 2001 and expires this year, was supported by two $5.5 million grants, one from the Hewlett Foundation and the other from the Mellon Foundation.

MIT is now applying for second-round funding and has budgeted $20 million to the project over the next three to four years.

OpenCourseWare has required its planners to sort through thorny intellectual property issues, and it has had to overcome its share of technical hurdles. To help integrate a wide array of media types and other sources, the project is using Microsoft's Content Management System 2002.

Just emerging from its pilot stage, the project has yet to inspire leagues of imitators among prestigious universities. But MIT points out that one program, the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, does credit OCW with inspiring its knowledge-sharing program.

"We're very pleased to have our first copycat," Potts said. "They've incorporated a significant amount of our materials, and they say it's modeled on MIT's."

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