Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Nov 01, 2002

This Journal Column published as Massachusetts Institute of Technology in The Technology Source November/December 2002 online Nov 01, 2002. [Link] [Info] [List all Publications]

When the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced last year that it would be publishing nearly all its courses online, the news caused a flurry of excitement, and in some quarters, apprehension. Some hailed it as an innovation that "will generally lead to an increase of knowledge, which in turn will lead to increased innovation in all fields" (Ishii and Lutterbeck, 2001, ¶ 28). But MIT's suggestion that the Open CourseWare project would "challenge the privatization of knowledge" raised the hackles of those whose business it is to sell courseware online. Some commentators raised the possibility of fraudulent use of the materials (e.g., Witherspoon, 2001). Others, like "guttentag" (2002), asked, "How long before we begin receiving emails like this? 'Get an MIT Education for only $24.99! Our one-of-a-kind CD has lecture notes, diagrams, exams with answers and other materials provided by real MIT professors for HUNDREDS of courses'" (Msg. #4362535).

A visitor to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology home page is greeted with a simple, fast-loading and efficient menu. Though the design of the page changes from time to time to recognize campus events, the main menu remains simple and stable. The changing design is referred to as a "spotlight" and a gallery of past spotlights is available. Collectively, the spotlights form a visual and textual history of events at MIT from 1996 forward.

Immediately below the spotlight link is a link to MIT's news page. A strong resource in its own right, MIT News is divided into three efficient columns. On the left, in a narrow column, is campus news relevant to MIT students and staff. The narrow column on the right hand side of the page, misnamed "MIT in the News," links to items that may be of interest to journalists and news writers. The large center column is reserved for news involving MIT of wider interest to the public—an interesting mixture of news in science and technology, commentary by MIT professors, and sometimes, sports information.

MIT's front page organization is a model of an efficient and effective home page. Though the more usual university categories follow (such as "academics," "research," and "administration"), the menu provides quick and efficient access to the most recent and relevant contents of the Web site as a whole. A simple search box is available (with an internal search of MIT as seen by Google). Worth particular mention is the events calendar, an intuitively designed graphical representation of three months, clickable dates, listings of specific event types (such as concerts, conferences, and deadlines), a "today's events" button, a link to a campus map and, of course, calendar search.

Entering the MIT OpenCourseWare page (currently, a direct link from the MIT home page) takes you to a simple menu sorted by academic unit, a short welcoming message from MIT president Charles M. Vest, and an "Open CourseWare Timeline" highlighting activities from the "Discover/Build" phase of 2002-2003 to the proposed "Steady State" envisioned for 2007. Links to project information and a search function are available in the upper right masthead. A link to "view all courses" is also available.

Most readers will want to review the list of all courses. At the time of the launch of the OpenCourseWare pilot (September 30, 2002) there were 38 courses from 17 departments available. The pilot is therefore at this point a sampling of what the finished project will look like, but is itself only the smallest selection of MIT's total bank of courses. Clicking on a department name takes you to a departmental list of courses. Clicking on the course name takes you directly to the course.

Though there are some variations in style, the format from course to course is similar and standard. Clicking on Problems of Philosophy, for example, takes the reader to a title page with a small thematic graphic, a course description, and a menu of options in the left hand column. The menu is exactly what would be expected, listing the course syllabus, calendar, lecture notes, assignments and exams, readings and related resources. The syllabus, calendar, and assignments pages are exactly what a student would need to receive at the beginning of an academic year: a detailed day-by-day description of the course and course components. As a result, a reviewer learns almost immediately to click first on the lecture notes, as this is where the content of the course is contained.

The quality and quantity of lecture notes varies widely from course to course. They are not always called lecture notes: in the Introduction to Computers and Engineering Problem Solving course, for example, you would click on "Class sessions." In Industrial Organization I the relevant link is called "Recitations." The Intermediate Heat and Mass Transfer course does without lecture notes at all, referring readers instead to "Simulations" and "Study Materials." Most of this support material is available in both HTML and PDF format, though the materials include a scattering of simulations, animations, and other multimedia.

One of the more commonly asked questions of the OpenCourseWare initiative is, "Could I learn the course content from the online material alone?" and on review it seems to me that the answer to this question is, "No." What is lacking for much of the material is a context, an indication of the relevance of the text or media. Consider the Random Walk Animation, for example. Clicking on the diagram produces a Real Media video of fluctuating graphs and changing pointal data. The description says that "This animation shows the motion of 500 particles in a one-dimensional random walk with step size X = 1 in time t = 1. This random walk animation mimics the effect of Fickian Diffusion." The theory behind the animation is provided, but this tells the reader that the example is not really about walking; it is about random diffusion. But without sufficient background knowledge, the information and the mathematics are otherwise meaningless.

In fairness, it should be stated that it was never MIT's intention to produce self-supporting learning materials. As has been noted by numerous commentators, "It is important not to confuse the terms 'open course-ware' and 'open and distance learning.' The MIT OpenCourseWare initiative clearly states that it is not a distance learning initiative" (Hope, 2002, ¶ 6). The OpenCourseWare FAQ stresses that "Distance learning involves the active exchange of information between faculty and students, with the goal of obtaining some form of a credential" (MIT, 2002, ¶ 6). The OpenCourseWare is intended to publish on the Web the materials required to support a course, as opposed to offering the course itself on the Web.

On the one hand it may be tempting to ask whether this is enough. A student's access to learning isn't increased or made any cheaper by this initiative. But on the other hand, the OpenCourseWare project has won widespread praise because of its openness. It shows clearly to prospective MIT students what they should expect to learn. It sets standards and examples for similar courses offered throughout the world. It makes materials for those courses available for use for free by non-commercial enterprises. It is, as MIT President Charles M. Vest says, "opening a new door to the powerful, democratizing, and transforming power of education" (2001, ¶ 22).


Hope, A. (2002). Contribution of Ms. Andrea Hope. Paper presented at the 2002 UNESCO Forum on Open Courseware for Developing Countries, Paris. Retrieved October 2, 2002, from

Ishii, K. and Lutterbeck, B. (2001). Unexploited resources of online education for democracy—Why the future should belong to OpenCourseWare. First Monday, 6(11). Retrieved October 2, 2002, from

"guttentag" (2002, September 30). The birth of a new Spam product [Msg. #4362535]. Message posted to

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2002). MIT OpenCourseWare FAQ. Retrieved October 2, 2002, from

Vest, C. M. (2001). Disturbing the educational universe: Universities in the digital age—dinosaurs or Prometheans? Retrieved October 2, 2002, from

Witherspoon, John. 2001. MIT's OpenCourseWare initiative: Reading the implications. Menlo Park, CA: The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Retrieved October 2, 2002, from

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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