MIT offers courses free of charge online

While MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW) project isn’t quite a free education, it is a new approach to the open sharing of knowledge over the Internet.

Launched in September, anyone with an Internet connection and a Web browser can access the syllabus, assignments, exams and answers, reference materials and, in some cases, video lectures of MIT courses.

First announced in 2001, the idea behind OCW is to make course materials used in almost all of MIT’s undergraduate and graduate subjects available online, free of charge, to users anywhere in the world, according to Jon Paul Potts, spokesperson for the OCW project.

Potts said the goal of the project is to advance technology-enhanced education at MIT and to serve as a model for university dissemination of knowledge in the Internet age.

However, Potts said, MIT isn’t putting its current semester course offerings online; rather, it is putting up course offerings from previous terms.

Potts said MIT plans to put most of the materials from its 2,000 courses online by the 2006-07 academic year.

He said OCW will allow faculty from other institutions and other people to observe teaching methods and resources used by MIT’s faculty. “This is not distance learning,” Potts said. “The goal is to provide the content that supports an education.”

Since the site went live, more than 130,000 users from around the world, including Africa, Algeria, Canada, Finland and Latvia, have accessed the site, and 1,700 of them have sent e-mails offering comments about the site, Potts said.

Currently, individual course sites and the course materials for the pilot phase of OCW use HTML. The course sites are static Web pages, he said, but they use a number of additional formats, including PDF files, Java Applets and video files.

Potts said OCW is still working on the technology infrastructure and studying other potential platforms to determine what the project will use in the long term. He said OCW is intended to be built using a full-featured content management and publication production system.

The initial phase of the project, which cost US$11 million, was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.