Prism Magazine - Novmber 2001
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Open University

By throwing millions of pages of precious professional output onto a Web site, MIT is not only opening itself to the world, it may be changing forever the way education is delivered.

- 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 algorithms—and the musings of their own big brains—that 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 education worldwide.

For years, 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.

OpenCourseWare 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.

Students 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.”

MIT's 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 give—hands-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 technologies—many 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 war.


Setting the Stage

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.

MIT continued 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 “Sloanie”—a 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 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.'”

Ten years 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.”

Shelley Hayes, 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.”

In 1998, MIT expanded its distance learning experiment, adding a joint venture with two universities in Singapore—Nanyang 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.”

The institute 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 of teaching.”

The online 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.”

Paul Gray, 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 class.


The Launch

OpenCourseWare 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.”

The first 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.”

Nancy Shute is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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