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September 02, 2004

f you've wondered a Massachusetts Institute of Technology education is like, take a gander at theĀ MIT OpenCourseWare site. From the syllabus to lecture notes, course calendars, problem sets and solutions, exams, reading lists and even video lectures, it's all in there.

The MIT OpenCourseWare site is an experiment started in 1999 to share MIT's teaching material with educators, enrolled students and self-learners around the world. With 701 courses spread over 33 academic disciplines, the site has done phenomenally well as an exercise in reaching out. It gets about 12,000 unique visitors each day. And this May, it received 1.03 million hits from users in India, placing India third after the United States and Taiwan in terms of hits.

Why do people flock here in such numbers?

According to Jon Paul Potts, MIT OpenCourseWare communications manager, "Many universities use the Web to make standard course materials available to their students. But access is only provided to students enrolled at these institutions." The goal of MIT OCW is grander -- "to provide the course materials free and open to the world," says Potts.

The OCW site was a result of a question MIT Provost Robert A Brown posed to some MIT faculty, students and administrators in 1999: how should MIT position itself in the distance/e-learning environment?

The resulting recommendations laid the groundwork for MIT OpenCourseWare.

The pilot site, launched in September 2002, provided access to 32 courses. In a year, the number rose to 500, and by March 2004, there were 701 courses available.

The course materials offered may be used, copied, distributed, translated and modified -- but only for non-commercial, educational purposes.

"It is an ideal that flows from the MIT faculty's passionate belief in the MIT mission, based on the conviction that the open dissemination of knowledge and information can open new doors to the powerful benefits of education... around the world," says Potts.

MIT OCW differs from most online offerings in that it is free, accessible to all and comes from one of the most respected educational institutions in the world. But it has its limitations.

"MIT OCW is not meant to replace degree-granting higher education or for-credit courses. Rather, the goal is to provide content that supports an education," says Potts.

By 2008, MIT hopes to put the material from all of its 2,000 courses online.

"It provides the content of, but is not a substitute for, an MIT education," cautions Potts. "The most fundamental cornerstone of the learning process at MIT is the interaction between faculty and students in the classroom and among students themselves on campus."

MIT OCW does not provide for visitors hoping to make direct contact with the MIT faculty. But reader feedback is forwarded to the relevant MIT faculty member. It is up to the faculty member to respond or not.

The site offers access to videos from about 25 courses. However, because of the limitations of bandwidth and the cost of putting the videos online, Potts says the site does not have many video clips.

Educators are encouraged to utilise the materials for curriculum development, students can augment their current learning by making use of the materials offered, and self-learners are encouraged to draw upon MIT OCW for self-study or supplementary use.

"MIT OCW will advance technology-enhanced education at MIT and will serve as a model for university dissemination of knowledge in the Internet age," says Potts. He believes it could also bring about fundamental changes in the way colleges and universities use the Web as a vehicle for education.

Image: Uttam Ghosh

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