By Nancy Shute
MIT is known
worldwide as an incubator of eggheads, an insular realm inhabited
by pale men and women with pocket protectors who are so enchanted
by transistors and algorithmsand the musings of their own
big brainsthat they're oblivious to the world beyond
Massachusetts Avenue. Examples of that stereotype may still haunt
the campus, but they won't for long. MIT is opening itself
to the world, with a vengeance. The changes afoot promise to have
a major impact on education not only at MIT, but on engineering
MIT's introductory computer-science course was immutable:
always at 10 a.m., always in the 10-250 lecture hall
with up to 400 students. But students now attend 6.001
by clicking through PowerPoint lecture slides on the Web, at 4
a.m. or whenever they please. Students in 6.002, the introductory
electrical engineering class, can watch video tutorials and take
quizzes online. And in some classrooms, the questions are as likely
to come from a student in Singapore, 12 time zones away, as they
are from one in Cambridge. But these experiments pale compared
with OpenCourseWare. Last April, MIT announced that starting in
the fall of 2002, MIT will post all of its course material on
the Internet free of charge. Offerings will include not only course
syllabi, reading lists, and bibliographies but also professors'
lecture notes. We see MIT OpenCourseWare as opening a new
door to the powerful, democratizing, and transforming power of
education, president Charles Vest said.
may be MIT's most audacious educational effort, but it's
hardly the first time the school has experimented with how it
delivers education. Most people in the world see us as a
research entity, said provost Robert Brown, a chemical engineer
and former dean of engineering. They don't see all
the people walking around with the brass rat on their finger,
he added, referring to campus slang for MIT's beaver mascot.
Education, Brown says, is a major product line for us.
And tailoring educational offerings to meet the needs of students,
industry, and government is a mission that's been with MIT
from the start. The institute was founded in 1861 to respect
the dignity of useful work, quite different from the philosophical
abstractions pondered by the rich kids across the way at Harvard.
This is a place for men to work and not boys to play,
said president Francis Amasa Walker.
came to MIT to acquire the practical skills needed to work in
the new industries springing up: textiles, steel, paper, food
processing. No such school had ever existed, and MIT professors
created the curriculum on the fly. First came a new Manual of
Inorganic Chemistry, written by Charles W. Eliot and Francis H.
Storer. That was followed by Edward C. Pickering's experimental
physics teaching laboratory, which served as the launch pad for
MIT's, and the nation's, first electrical engineering
curriculum, introduced in 1882. In those days, much of the course
work was devoted to mechanical engineering and liberal arts, since
there were precious few practical applications for electricity
in a world where most people had never seen a light bulb. Even
so, E.E. quickly became popular; as early as 1892, 27 percent
of MIT graduates were in electrical engineering. Still, other
disciplines weren't slighted. By the turn of the century,
MIT had pioneered curricula in sanitary, marine, and chemical
engineering. That curriculum, said the institute's 1888 catalogue,
was being created to meet the needs of students who desire
a general training in mechanical engineering, and at the same
time to devote a portion of their time to the study of the applications
of chemistry to the arts, especially to those engineering problems
which relate to the use and manufacture of chemical products.
early experiments in education worked, with its newly minted engineers
warmly welcomed in industry. But that success prompted demand
for something that the lecture hall, and even the laboratory,
couldn't givehands-on experience before graduation.
It wasn't surprising that MIT, which had been founded as
an institution closely allied with industry, would make that relationship
even tighter. Arthur D. Little was a product of MIT; he had been
one of the school's first chemistry students, helped develop
its chemical engineering curriculum, and went on to found his
eponymous industrial research firm in 1886. In 1916, Little joined
forces with William H. Walker, an MIT chemistry professor, to
create an industrial internship program that farmed students out
to New England firms. The program was widely imitated by other
engineering departments, and continues at MIT today.
At the same
time, MIT ventured into what would become a long and fruitful
partnership with the federal government, a partnership that paid
unexpected dividends in higher education. The first move came
in 1913, on the verge of World War I, when the Navy dispatched
Jerome C. Hunsaker to MIT to teach special classes on aeronautics
to Navy officers, whose education lagged behind that of their
counterparts in Europe. Hunsaker's laboratory and wind tunnel
became the foundation of the institute's aeronautical engineering
program, and its graduates played key roles in developing modern
aviation. In the 1930s, the federal government began to invest
more heavily in technology that could have military applications.
The Office of Scientific Research and Development, headed by former
MIT dean of engineering Vannevar Bush, financed the development
of sonar, radar, and other new technologiesmany of which
were born at MIT's Radiation Lab. At the height of World
War II, the Rad Lab employed 4,000 people, including 20 percent
of the physicists in the United States, and hundreds of electrical
engineers. The Rad Lab forces overwhelmed MIT, occupying 15 acres
of floor space on and around the campus. But the lab firmly established
MIT as a world center for research and development in electrical
engineering, and the 27-volume Rad Lab series of articles
was used for engineering education around the world after the
So it seems
only natural that if education would become part of the nation's
defense strategy, it would come from MIT. The birth of nuclear
warfare and the advent of the Cold War created demand for nuclear
and electrical engineers, and sparked concern that American students
were ill-prepared to tackle these increasingly complex disciplines.
The Soviet Union's launch of the Sputnik satellite on October
4, 1957, only fed those fears. Jerrold Zacharias, a physics professor
at MIT, created the Physical Sciences Study Committee to develop
a high school physics curriculum that would be both more rigorous
and engaging. Tens of thousands of baby boomers were first exposed
to physics through PSSC filmstrips and laboratory experiments,
and it would be hard to find a middle-aged engineering professor
today who doesn't retain a fond memory of PSSC physics class.
At the same time, MIT began to place greater emphasis on math
and physics for its engineering students. The move was the work
of Gordon Brown, who as dean of engineering argued that unless
students had strong math and science skills, no industrial internship
could make them into good engineers. Brown's engineering
science continues today at MIT, and is emulated at universities
around the world.
to tweak its curriculum to meet the needs of industry, as those
needs changed to deal with a globalizing economy. Of course MIT
was not the only university to respond to the changing economic
climate. Countless engineering schools across the nation altered
their curricula in response to the new economy. It may seem laughable
now, but in the 1980s it looked like Toyota and other Japanese
manufacturers were going to eat American industry's lunch.
We were facing a serious crisis in manufacturing,
says Tom Magnanti, dean of MIT's engineering school. Our
quality wasn't good, our costs weren't good, all the
metrics you might think of. At the time, Magnanti was a
Sloaniea professor at MIT's Sloan School of
Management. He and other professors from Sloan and the engineering
school spent two years putting together a program designed to
counter the Japanese threat. They came up with the Leaders for
Manufacturing master's program, which debuted in 1988. We
didn't want to replicate management expertise in the engineering
school, Magnanti said. We thought we should really
draw on the talents of the two schools. They also drew on
the financial backing of its sponsors, which included Boeing,
Eastman Kodak, Digital, Motorola, United Technologies, and Johnson
& Johnson. Students, sponsored by their employers, spent two
years studying manufacturing technology and management, a program
that includes plant tours and an internship. It's business
impacts, not just mathematical formulas, says Jeff Wilke,
a senior vice president at Amazon.com. While an L.F.M., he interned
at the world's largest aluminum plant, owned by Alcoa, and
learned to deal with international competition and a unionized
workforce. He applies the lessons learned every day at Amazon,
where he's in charge of all the back-end things that
make it work when you click on order.'
later, MIT responded to yet another demand from industry: educate
managers of complex systems, be it building a Boeing 777 or a
new telecommunications system, without yanking those promising
employees out of the workforce for two years. The System Design
and Management Program is MIT's first foray into distance
education, a 24-month graduate-level program co-sponsored by the
engineering and management schools. Students are required to be
on campus for a one-month opening session and one single term,
and to take periodic business trips back to campus.
The rest of the time, they attend classes via video conferences
at their workplaces, and work on virtual teams via e-mail and
Web sites. This is the technological alternative to an MBA,
says Dennis Mahoney, director of the S.D.M. program. The students
range in age from late 20s to early 50s; most have children at
home. The beauty of it is, with the background they have and the
maturity they have, they bring a real richness to the discussion,
Mahoney says. The learning is as much from the fellow students.
a 38-year-old program manager at Xerox, found that having fellow
S.D.M. students at Xerox with her was invaluable. In the
breaks we'd talk. We'd go out for a beer and inevitably
start talking about class. We had a discussion group on the Web
site, but that never really took off. Students who were
by themselves at a work site, she says, were suffering.
MIT expanded its distance learning experiment, adding a joint
venture with two universities in SingaporeNanyang Technological
University and the National University of Singapore. Undergraduate
and graduate students there take MIT classes via video conferencing
but receive their degrees from the Singapore schools. There
are lessons to learn with the technology, says Steve Graves,
a professor of manufacturing who teaches in the program. How
do you engage these multiple audiences, and make them feel a part?
He finds he does more cold-calling of students, and
finds it harder getting feedback from the remote students. We're
all still on the steep part of the learning curve.
has also been experimenting with distance learning closer to home.
Two years ago, MIT's legendary introductory computer science
course, 6.001, was shifted from a large lecture to online PowerPoint
slides. Eric Grimson, the professor, narrates the slides, but
students can delete the audio if they choose and just read along.
They can go as fast or slow as they please, and replay lectures.
They also meet once a week in small groups with a professor for
question-and-answer sessions, called recitations. Most students
rate the experience positively, although the technique remains
the subject of much on-campus debate. The running joke is that
MIT students live on Hawaiian time, and that being
able to view the lectures whenever they want radically reduces
the risk of sleeping through class. I've had attendance
problems for all of my classes before about noon, says Henry
Stanaland, who took 6.001 last year. However, 6.001 was
the first class where I've seen every lecture. It's
the first non-humanities class where I've gotten a B, breaking
my all-C streak. Stanaland and other students also had high
praise for the class's online quizzes. You could keep
redoing the quizzes until you got them right, says Michael
Metzger, a 20-year-old junior from Roslyn Heights, NY. I
found that extremely valuable as quick feedback. But I
still prefer the other way, says Tao Yue, another 6.001
student. Convenience may be good, but it leads one to try
to multitask while listening to the lecture, or at least I did.
Video replay is fine, but it shouldn't be the primary means
experiment grew out of discussions with Grimson and Tomas Lozano-Perez,
associate head of the computer science department. They were all
too aware that lecture attendance dropped precipitously toward
the end of the term, with students overwhelmed by multiple projects.
It was important to see if there's a better way of
educating students, Grimson says. At first, he missed the
rush of giving a good lecture performance. But
the bottom line is that's not why we're there. We're
there to teach. Responding to students like Yue who said
they missed seeing a live lecture, Grimson offered six. Four hundred
students showed up for the first; 90 showed up for the fifth.
They vote with their feet, Grimson says. He loves the feedback
he gets from the online quizzes, which he says make it easier
to know what students get and what needs more attention. I'm
fairly convinced this is working better than it did before.
a former MIT president and professor of electrical engineering,
is experimenting with an online segment for the school's
second core engineering subject, circuits and electronics. Although
he still gives traditional lectures, students can also watch filmed
tutorials online starring a nattily-attired Gray, and take online
quizzes. I like the interaction of the lecture, Gray
says. but I think there will be a version of this that continues.
He's also eager to experiment with instant feedback, in which
students would use handheld devices to respond to questions in
is MIT's latest, and without a doubt wildest, experiment
in education. MIT officials are quick to point out that it's
not distance learning; people can't take courses or get MIT
degrees online. But it will make the resources of a world leader
in technology education available to students and teachers in
Accra and Chiang Mai and Shanghai, simultaneously. The idea grew
out of the Council on Educational Technology, founded by MIT two
years ago to explore whether there should be an e-MIT. The group
quickly decided that was a bad idea. Our core competency
is interacting very intensely with very bright and ambitious students
who share our same mission, says provost Brown. That
mission did not match well with distance education.
But it did
get the committee talking about how information technology could
be used to enhance what MIT was good at. None of the committee
members imagined in their wildest dreams that the end result would
be throwing millions of pages of precious professorial output
onto a Web site. In the end, they realized that MIT's greatest
product was the way it educated its students. Putting course materials
online, they decided, would give teachers and students around
the world a view into the educational process at MIT, and one
that wouldn't take years or decades to filter out to remote
corners of the globe. The publication of scholarly material
used in teaching doesn't have to wait to get to the world
at the same rate as when you had to own a printing press to get
it out, says Brown. It's 13th-century education
in a 21st-century hose.
materials will go online in a year, but the entire project is
expected to take a decade. Professors will be given the choice
of whether to submit their lecture notes; some are eager, others
reluctant. All anticipate that the experiment will change how
MIT educates students on campus. We raised the ante on ourselves,
says Brown. The classroom can no longer be used just to
meter out information to the students. That contact time has to
be used to give real value.
Shute is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
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