April 23, 2001

MIT to Put All Class Content on Web

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This month, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced that it will spend 10 years in order to offer lectures notes, syllabi, reading lists, assignments and other materials on the World Wide Web for every one of its classes. Anyone with access to the Internet will have access to all of these materials. MIT will encourage more “technically-oriented content,” according to its website.

“We’re not trying to offer courses, we’re trying to offer the materials,” said Prof. Steven Lerman, civil and environmental engineering and faculty chair.

“This is much more in the spirit of a textbook,” Lerman said. “There’s no interactivity expected,” said Cornell Prof. Charles Van Loan, chair of computer science.

According to MIT professor Harold Abelson, who was involved in developing the OpenCourseWare (OCW) project, the decision to begin the OpenCourseWare initiative required widespread discourse among MIT faculty.

The faculty decided that OCW would be the best way for the university to use the internet for its academic programs.

“This is the most extensively [discussed] issue ever at MIT,” Abelson said.

Cornell Prof. Kenneth Birman, computer science, agreed that taking a class differs from reading all of the materials on the Web.

“There was a sort of false perception that there was a tremendous amount of value to those web pages, wondering if we should limit access to course websites,” he said.

Both Birman and Van Loan said that Cornell would probably not embark on a project to post and systematize web pages for all of its classes.

“Doing things in a fixed way becomes a bit ponderous,” Van Loan said.

Birman stressed that interaction with professors, not access to materials, is the crucial part of taking any college class.

“[By offering free access], MIT has shifted back the attention to the professors,” he said.

To many, the move seemed completely logical.

“[Professors are] making a lot of this stuff anyway,” Abelson said.

“I couldn’t understand myself what the big deal was,” Van Loan said.

MIT, as well as Cornell, already has websites for many, if not most of its courses. “Right now it’s random, some people put [materials] up [on the web and some don’t],” Abelson said.

However, the difference with OCW is that the formatting and much of the content of each course’s site will be made uniform.

“Computer science [at Cornell] has course websites which are open to the public,” Van Loan said. “What’s dramatic, I suppose, is the 100 percent part [of the OCW initiative].”

Abelson made a clear distinction between offering course materials on the Web and offering classes.

“We think that education is about interaction,” Abelson said.

“Once you take the instructor out of the loop, you’ve really lost a large part of the learning experience,” Birman said.

Justin Paluska, an engineering and computer science student at MIT agreed that posted course materials are not the same as participating in a course on campus.

“MIT is about pressure and getting things done in a short amount of time, [which is] also why an MIT education is worth so much more than the mere material we learn,” Paluska said.

“The phrase ‘Getting an education at MIT is like taking a drink from a firehose’ is more than accurate,” he added.

MIT has also emphasized that making their materials available on the Web will allow for a greater amount of intellectual discussion among students and professors from universities around the world.

“We see a lot of potential for use in developing countries,” Lerman said. “This will help them to get started.”

According to Lerman, other universities and professors will be able to use these materials to improve their own courses and knowledge of a particular topic.

“Many of us have experience situations where professors from other countries have wanted to use our materials,” Lerman added.

OCW will allow students to look at materials from courses that they are not able to take.

“I do think that it is a good idea to offer material on the web, because I know that I have been grateful that I could find material related to my classes at other universities,” Paluska said.

MIT has stressed that OCW will be free and open to whomever logs on.

“It’s making a statement, saying that everything is going to be open,” Van Loan said.

“This can be used just as advertising for how good the courses are [at MIT],” Birman said.

“MIT has been creating free things for ages,” Paluska said, citing the Kerberos system as an example. Kerberos is the security system that that authenticates NetID passwords and then issues the “electronic ticket” that is visible on the screen when using applications such as TravelersMail, WebEmail and other applications restricted to a particular group of users.

This initiative is a different approach to using the Web. Many other universities, including Cornell, have chosen to use the Web to offer courses that users must pay for.

“I have to tell you that we went into this expecting … frankly .. that it would be something based on a revenue-producing model,” said MIT President Charles M. Vest.

Cornell introduced eCornell last year as a company which offers for-profit, non-credit professional courses in a number of fields. MIT has no equivalent to eCornell, although it does offer some online non-credit courses for profit.

Online distance learning has had “much rougher sailing than expected” for universities that have undertaken the venture, the New York Times reported Vest as saying.

“Something like that’s going to grow up at MIT in spaces,” Abelson said.

“We want to be really careful about things that will divert MIT faculty from MIT students,” he added.

Paluska also noted that, although many MIT classes already have web sites, requiring every class to have one will help him as an MIT student.

“It’s helpful because I can just log into any computer and print out something that I missed,” he said.

Archived article by Maggie Frank