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After five years, OpenCourseWare has a dedicated following — and many imitators. But it struggles with costs and copyrights.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Prof. Hal Abelson and Phillip Greenspun have never met Kwadwo Gyamfi Osafo-Maafo. They have never visited Ashesi University College or even set foot in Ghana. But Abelson and Greenspun might as well be standing on either side of Osafo-Maafo as he teaches Web Technologies in Ghana’s capital city, Accra. The syllabus he uses, the projects and readings he assigns, the lectures he presents, all are modeled at least in part on their MIT course, Software Engineering for Internet Applications. Osafo-Maafo thinks of Abelson and Greenspun as his mentors — the mentors he’s never met.

The bridge that connects the American professors to a classroom 5,000 miles away from Cambridge, Mass., is MIT’s OpenCourseWare. This mine of educational resources has in five years put 1,800 courses — virtually the entire MIT curriculum — onto the Internet. Lecture notes, reading lists, quizzes, answers, assignments, syllabuses, slides, and a limited number of textbooks and videotaped lectures are freely offered to faculty, students, and anyone with a sense of curiosity anywhere in the world. The website,, draws 15 million visits per year and has earned public praise from Bill Gates and from Margaret Spellings, the outgoing Bush administration secretary of education. The idea of OpenCourseWare “was absolutely revolutionary,” says Catherine Casserly, director of Open Educational Resources at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, “and it has surpassed our wildest dreams.”

Some educators believe that OpenCourseWare’s greatest accomplishment is not the website itself but rather, what it has set in motion. Today, the open educational resources movement has seen more than a hundred universities around the world put course content online for free public use, many of them through the MIT-inspired OpenCourseWare Consortium. As OpenCourseWare’s executive director, Cecilia d’Oliveira, says, “If MIT hadn’t gone out on a limb and done this, it’s hard to see that it would have caught on at such a level around the world.”


Still, no other university has even attempted an Internet project on the scale of MIT’s, and d’Oliveira thinks she knows why: “It’s very difficult.” For example, each course is littered with copyright conflicts that must be cleared up. And after spending $29 million, even MIT is not sure how it will fund the next phase of OpenCourseWare. MIT’s bold experiment has demonstrated not only the possibilities but also the pitfalls awaiting any institution that dares to share.

Today, with universities from Yale to Stanford uploading free courses onto the Internet, it is easy to overlook how radical an idea OpenCourseWare was at its inception. In 1999, the Internet bubble was floating skyward, and “universities were going to make billions putting their courses on the Internet,” recalls MIT’s Abelson. MIT found itself lagging behind other elite colleges like Harvard and Princeton that had lined up deals with venture capitalists and Internet start-ups. So Abelson and others were charged with exploring opportunities for MIT to catch the wave.

Another engineer involved in the genesis of OpenCourseWare, Steve Lerman, recalls that after various financial models yielded disappointing projections, “someone raised his hand and said, ‘What if we don’t even try to make money? What if we just made materials available for free?’” It was, adds Lerman, “a countercultural, truly off-the-wall, odd idea.”

But the virtuous audacity of the concept excited both MIT’s administration and its faculty. On April 4, 2001, the announcement of MIT’s OpenCourseWare made front-page news in the New York Times. The institute promised to put 500 courses online in the following two years and the complete curriculum by 2007 at the latest. The unprecedented challenge inspired then MIT President Charles Vest to quote T.S. Eliot: “Do I dare/ Disturb the universe?” To which Vest added, “Our answer is ‘yes.’”

On Nov. 28, 2007, the current MIT president, Susan Hockfield, declared that with 1,800 courses published, the goal had been met. The size of the archive boggles the mind: notes from 15,000 lectures and 9,000 problem sets, plus more than 650 courses translated into at least 10 languages on overseas websites.


Other universities have been satisfied to present digital versions of just their most popular courses. But for the founders of OpenCourseWare, its comprehensiveness is entirely the point. “If we merely said, ‘We’ll put up the most popular courses,’ that wouldn’t be very interesting,” says Abelson. “The idea was to give a complete picture of the curriculum, to see what MIT’s chemical engineering department thinks a chemical engineering curriculum should look like.”

This big picture matters to the audience that OpenCourseWare’s founders originally had in mind: faculty members, administrators, and even education bureaucrats in developing countries. At Makerere University in Uganda, for instance, OpenCourseWare helps inform the evolving curriculum. “We look at what MIT people are teaching and identify what elements we would need to fit in,” says Otine Charles Daniel, an assistant lecturer of electrical engineering. Lerman of MIT says that “whole countries or universities are using OpenCourseWare to benchmark their curriculum,” particularly in the former Soviet bloc. While users get access to course materials, they do not become MIT students. OpenCourseWare does not provide course credit or grant degrees or certificates.

Faculty members actually make up only 16 percent of OpenCourseWare users. But, says Lerman, “each of them will touch hundreds or thousands of students; that’s where the leverage comes in.” A survey of faculty users shows that 66 percent of them often refer their students to OpenCourseWare’s website, and 30 percent regularly distribute printed copies of site materials. Virtually all say the site helps improve their courses.

Though the website was not set up specifically to allow university students to follow the courses, they make up more than a third of visitors. Olutola Jonah, studying for his Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Nigeria’s Obafemi Awolowo University, says he sometimes sits in on OpenCourseWare for hours at a time. “We have good academics here but not comparable to what they have at MIT,” he says, “MIT is far ahead of us.” Laurent Evrard, director of computer services for the Polytechnic of Namibia, believes that MIT may be too far ahead. “MIT is one of the top five universities in the world . . . we’re ranked 21st in Africa,” he explains. Still, he notes that Namibian students are accessing OpenCourseWare so heavily that “it must have an impact.”

When Cosmas Mwikirize of Uganda tackled the Electronic Circuits course at Makerere, few of his fellow students knew that he was logging on to OpenCourseWare on a weekly basis to follow Microelectronic Devices and Circuits as taught at MIT. He found, for example, that the MIT lecture notes explained frequency response of multistage amplifiers better than his own lecturer could. Mwikirize says that though useful information on engineering can be found elsewhere on the Internet, “here it’s already sorted out for you into a course.” He credits OpenCourseWare with helping him achieve an A.

Like many students in developing countries, Mwikirize uses OpenCourseWare to compensate for a lack of up-to-date textbooks. He considers himself fortunate that donations from relatives have allowed him to buy a total of two textbooks in four years. Professor Daniel says that he refers students to MIT’s website because the library at Makerere may have only a couple of old textbooks to share among 70 students in a class. “OpenCourseWare is state of the art,” says the Ugandan. “I tell them to constantly check on it.”

The irony of this situation is that very few courses on the website actually include an online textbook; students must usually get by with sparse lecture notes. In Mechanical Behavior of Materials, for example, registered MIT students in Cambridge receive a course reader with selections copied from eight different textbooks. Those accessing the class in OpenCourseWare are given only links for purchasing those eight books on at a total cost of $685.

MIT’s Greenspun blames the access problem on fellow academics who fail to make their textbooks available online. “They’re holding information hostage,” argues Greenspun, who puts all of his books on the Internet. “They don’t think, ‘What about teenagers in Poland or South Africa who are not part of the market for a $50 textbook?’” And the difficulty is not restricted to poorer nations. “California community college students spend more on textbooks than on tuition,” says Casserly of the Hewlett foundation. “It’s a barrier.”

But the staff of OpenCourseWare has enough of a battle just getting permission to reprint a diagram or a table, much less an entire textbook. Executive Director D’Oliveira says the average course includes 18 copyrighted elements. Her staff must evaluate each one and write a letter to the original publisher seeking permission to reprint it on the website, find a replacement, or simply delete it in a process known as “copyright scrubbing.” “Our whole process revolves around those tasks,” she says.

Often, the end result is online lecture notes, quizzes, and handouts riddled with blank spaces that are captioned, “Removed due to copyright restrictions.” D’Oliveira believes that the only solution lies in blanket agreements with publishers, such as the one she negotiated with Elsevier B.V., which grants OpenCourseWare limited rights to any of the journal publisher’s text and images.


Some other online education initiatives are bypassing the copyright issue by creating their own content from scratch. Connexions, which is headquartered at Rice University in Texas, fosters textbooklike online content by inviting widespread contributions, much as Wikipedia does. The platform was the brainchild of Rice University electrical and computer engineer Richard Baraniuk, who set out to write a textbook on digital signal processing, then realized that in such a rapidly evolving field, only a collaborative, online textbook could be comprehensive and up-to-date. Today, Connexions has 400 sets of course content from all over the world, including several for engineering courses.

At Carnegie Mellon University, the Open Learning Initiative integrates all information that would be found in textbooks, lectures, tutorials, and quizzes into a seamless, interactive, online course. A student taking a statics course on the Internet uses a computer mouse to balance various objects on fulcrums and enters the results of calculations online. A software “tutor” gives feedback, answers, and hints. The Hewlett foundation has funded the Open Learning Initiative and Connexions, as well as OpenCourseWare. “One size does not fit all,” says Casserly, “different models serve different learners and teachers for different purposes.”

Other universities have stuck with a traditional course structure of separate lectures, readings, projects, and tests but have gone beyond what MIT’s OpenCourseWare typically offers. The 10 free courses at Stanford Engineering Everywhere all include transcripts and videotaped lectures in a variety of formats, including YouTube and iTunes. Many provide the entire course reader. “We didn’t want bits and pieces,” says Andy diPaolo, senior associate dean of Stanford’s School of Engineering. “We wanted complete courses.”

MIT, by contrast, offers lecture videos for less than 2 percent of its courses. It was a sacrifice OpenCourseWare administrators had to make when choosing instead to maximize the number of courses on the site. “Several years ago, we decided that we had enough money to do video for about four courses a year,” says d’Oliveira. She acknowledges that video is very much in demand: 7 of the website’s 10 most popular courses include video. But even though many young Americans would love to download lectures onto their iPods, MIT has not lost sight of its core clientele. “Administrators are not the constituency looking for more video,” notes Lerman, “and [video] does not serve the poorest nations very well because of bandwidth problems” that make streaming large multimedia files impractical.

Some educators feel that a more serious deficiency in OpenCourseWare is the lack of discussion forums. “With collaboration, it would be vastly more effective for both teachers and students,” says Greenspun, who has taught dozens of MIT students how to incorporate forums into websites. “You might get a biology teacher from Croatia answering the questions of a biology student from Mozambique,” he adds. But d’Oliveira frets that MIT would have to pay staff to nurture the forums and weed out spam. “It could add hundreds of thousands of dollars to our costs.”

Even in the cause of free educational materials, there is no free lunch. Universities have to make hard choices about how to allocate the funds. Foundations have paid for MIT to upload a large number of basic course materials and for universities such as Carnegie Mellon to produce a handful of elaborate online courses. But CMU’s Open Learning Initiative courses cost up to $500,000 to produce, which means it has been able to develop just 11 courses, with two more in the works. Statics is its only offering in engineering. Stanford’s Engineering Everywhere will add to its 10 courses but only “if we can come up with a business model that makes sense,” says diPaolo. “It takes a lot of time, effort, and money.” Hewlett foundation’s Casserly says her organization would not pony up another $15 million for a university to repeat what MIT has done. And most of Hewlett’s open-education grants are now aimed at driving down the costs of putting classes online.

OpenCourseWare stays current by adding about 50 new courses and 150 updated courses each year as the curriculum evolves. But it isn’t easy: Each published course costs $10,000 to $15,000 to compile. In the period since the 1,800-course milestone was reached, grant funding has faded and OpenCourseWare’s staff has been cut in half. About 50 percent of the initiative’s funding now comes out of the university budget. For the rest, the website asks users to contribute and offers space for corporate logos on the home page in exchange for donations of $100,000 and up. Only one corporation has accepted the invitation so far.


MIT has not lost its Internet ambitions. The university’s leaders will soon conduct a “strategy reset” on OpenCourseWare that they hope will carry it in new directions. Yet much of the momentum has moved beyond MIT’s borders. The OpenCourseWare Consortium has member institutions in 21 countries that publish courses using MIT’s format. In the United States, 14 universities belong, including Notre Dame and the University of California at Berkeley. But other than MIT, only one, Utah State, has uploaded many engineering courses. The movement is more robust in Asia, where hundreds of MIT courses have been translated into Chinese and where more than half of all OpenCourseWare users reside.

Wherever they are in the world, one category of OpenCourseWare users has caught everyone by surprise: self-learners. Half of those accessing course content are not connected to a university in any way. “Lifelong learners are thirsting for this kind of knowledge,” says Casserly. In Las Vegas, 65-year-old Richard Williams has been drinking in Statics and Strength of Materials with gusto. The retired electrician volunteers as a mentor for secondary school science classes and came upon OpenCourseWare when looking for “whatever I could learn to pass on to youngsters.” Inspired by MIT Prof. Louis Bucciarelli’s information on I-beams, struts, and lattices, he built a 32-inch-long model bridge that could support almost 25 pounds — out of fettuccine pasta. He has shared the design widely, and his original bridge is now on display at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “It’s all because MIT taught me that I-beams are special creatures,” says Williams.

Another surprising set of users has been MIT students themselves. At least 70 percent of them access OpenCourseWare to practice on old tests, to “flash back” to previous course material they might have forgotten, and to help decide in what classes to enroll next. Aeronautics sophomore Cydnie Trice, who used the website to choose her next physics class, likes to follow an older version of a course while attending the current one. “I work better with different visual examples,” she says, “and one professor might show the solution to a problem in way I can understand better.”

The early fear that students would use OpenCourseWare instead of attending MIT has been laid to rest. In fact, a survey showed that of the freshmen who had found the website before they decided to apply, 35 percent said that it significantly influenced their choice of MIT. Yet even with video, much is missing from the real experience. In the first lecture of Circuits and Electronics, Prof. Anant Agarwal is discussing the validity of abstractions in dealing with real resistors. “Your lumped abstraction cannot predict the nice light and sound effects . . . or the smell,” he explains, while pumping 110 volts through a small pickle. Whether on a computer screen in Cameroon or live in Cambridge, you can see and hear that glowing gherkin. But to smell it, you’d have to attend MIT in person.


Don Boroughs is a freelance writer based in South Africa.




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