You earn no degree, but you can go to MIT free

By Gregory M. Lamb, Christian Science Monitor
Published January 14, 2007

By year's end, the contents of all 1,800 courses taught at one of the world's most prestigious universities will be available online to anyone in the world, anywhere in the world. Learners won't have to register, and everyone is accepted.

The cost? It's all free.

The OpenCourseWare movement, begun at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2002 and now spread to some 120 other universities worldwide, aims to disperse knowledge far beyond the ivy-clad walls of elite campuses to anyone who has an Internet connection.

Intended as an act of "intellectual philanthropy," OpenCourseWare, or OCW, provides free access to course materials such as syllabi, video or audio lectures, notes, homework assignments, illustrations and so on.

"We believe strongly that education can be best advanced when knowledge is shared openly and freely," says Anne Margulies, executive director of the OCW program at MIT. "MIT is using the power of the Internet to give away all of the educational materials created here."

The MIT site (ocw.mit.edu), along with companion sites that translate the material into other languages, now average about 1.4-million visits per month from learners "in every single country on the planet," Margulies says. Those include Iraq, Darfur, "even Antarctica," she says. "We hear from (the online students) all the time with inspirational stories about how they are using these materials to change their lives. They're really, really motivated."

OCW is not, its supporters agree, a substitute for attending a university. OCW learners aren't able to receive feedback from a professor -- or to discuss the course with fellow students. A college education is "really the total package of students interacting with other students, forming networks, interacting with faculty, and that whole environment of being associated with the school," says James Yager, a senior associate dean at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He oversees the OCW program there.

Besides MIT, Tufts, and Johns Hopkins, the OCW consortium (ocw consortium.org) in the United States includes among its members Michigan State, Michigan, Notre Dame and Utah State. Internationally, members include groups of universities in China, Japan and Spain.