A Bold Experiment at MIT Pays Off for All

December 1, 2005


Visitors to MIT often stop by the Frank Gehry-designed Stata Center, home of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems, and a few academic departments. The students and faculty worldwide who do their visiting online, via MIT OpenCourseWare, don’t seem to mind missing out on the occasional architectural gem as they work their way through a wide selection of courses in all departments. Photo by Patricia A. Sampson/MIT EECS.

You go to the Web for news and music, to do your banking, book flights, make hotel reservations, buy books, post research, take a course at MIT. . . .

As the Web insinuates itelf into the far corners of daily life, it's hard to imagine being surprised by anything new it has to offer. But a Web-based project at MIT, called MIT OpenCourseWare, has managed to surprise just about everyone, not only students and faculty all over the world, but also its creators--pretty much the entire MIT faculty, along with a group of experts brought in to make the project a reality.

What OCW Is (and Isn't)
As defined at http://ocw.mit.edu, "MIT OCW is a large-scale, Web-based publication of MIT course materials." More specifically, OCW makes the course materials used in the teaching of almost every undergraduate and graduate course at MIT "available on the Web, free of charge, to any user anywhere in the world."

As of late October, 1100 MIT courses (of a total of 1800) had been posted on the OCW Web site. The materials vary, but at the heart of almost every OCW course are the syllabus and the professor's lecture notes. Also frequently included are previous quiz and exam questions, problem sets, and handouts.

"We take everything the faculty are willing to share," says OCW executive director Anne Margulies,who heads a full-time staff of about twenty. Faculty participation is voluntary, she points out, but 70% of faculty have provided materials so far. In mid-October, Margulies and two other members of the OCW staff met with SIAM News to discuss the ambitious project.

Near the top of a list of 20 frequently asked questions posted on the OCW Web site is one that might occur to many readers: "Why is MIT doing this?" The answer traces the project back to 1999, when a faculty committee was formed "to provide strategic guidance on how MIT should position itself in the distance/e-learning environment." The committee's recommendation--essentially the concept realized in the materials now available at ocw.mit.edu--was approved by then MIT president Charles Vest and subsequently by the faculty. As loftily described by its creators, OCW is intended to be "a new model for the dissemination of knowledge and collaboration among scholars around the world." As a contribution from MIT "to the ‘shared intellectual commons' in academia," it is de-signed to foster "collaboration across MIT and among other scholars."

From October 1, 2003, to October 1, 2005, OCW had a total of 13.5 million visits. During the month of September 2005, visits numbered 502,836.

At the beginning, OCW's creators saw it mainly as a useful service MIT could provide for educators--within MIT, at other U.S. universities, perhaps at universities in other countries. As it turns out, educators account for a small proportion (about 13%) of OCW users; far outnumbering them are student users (31%), who are surpassed in turn by "self-learners" (close to 50%). Approximately two thirds of users are from outside the U.S.

For enthusiastic students and scholars worldwide, some boundaries had to be established. Even when the course materials provided are sufficient for a student anywhere in the world to "complete" a course, no degrees are awarded, no credits issued; OCW is not commercial distance learning.

Perhaps as important from the MIT faculty's perspective, access to OCW does not include access to MIT professors. Faculty are encouraged, in fact, to forward requests for information or help to the OCW staff. The eager-to-learn students are not completely cast adrift, however; discussion groups are now in place for about 150 OCW courses, mainly through an independent project at Utah State University.

OCW and the Mathematical Sciences
In the summer of 2000, readers of SIAM News got a glimpse of what would become a small but valuable component of OCW. Gil Strang, in the column he wrote as SIAM president (1999–2000), mentioned taking part in a new project at MIT: Each of his linear algebra (18.06) lectures the previous semester had been videotaped and posted on the Web. From his point of view, the effort was minimal--he was giving the lectures he would have given anyway--and some benefits were obvious: He could tape a lecture in advance if he knew he would have to miss a class, and a student who missed a key point, or a whole lecture, could go to the videotape.

Five years later, the videotaped 18.06 lectures have been incorporated into OCW. In part because of the cost and in part because of bandwidth requirements, full videotapes are available for only ten courses, with an additional five or so in the works. The mathematics department accounts for two of the ten: 18.06 and 18.03, a course in differential equations taught this year by Haynes Miller, with tapes of Arthur Mattuck's lectures from a previous year. According to OCW staff, 18.03 and 18.06 are two of the most heavily visited OCW sites (in September 2005, Strang's 18.06 was first on the list of most visited individual courses, with 16,846 visits). The large numbers can be attributed not only to the appeal of the videotapes but also to the nature of the courses, both of which cover material critical to many courses in a variety of departments.

OCW staff describe mathematics as "one of our most popular departments." The electrical engineering and computer science department attracts the most visitors, followed in descending order by math, physics, the Sloan School of Management, and economics.

Mathematics figures prominently in OCW "flashbacks"--links now being created between basic concepts and courses in which those concepts are used. Karen Willcox, who teaches a junior-level course, Principles of Automatic Control, in the aeronautics and astronautics department, has worked with Miller to create flashbacks linking her control course with 18.03.

"I have found that the Aero students really struggle with the math," Willcox writes to SIAM News. "They have a very hard time making a connection between what they learned in their math classes and how they are expected to apply those skills in an engineering class. The fact that so many of the students are caught up on the mechanics of the problem and the underlying math means that they are not getting to the next level of deep understanding of the engineering." Looking for ways to get around this problem, Willcox discovered that there was also "a very big disconnect" between math and engineering faculty.

Combing through her control course, lecture by lecture, Willcox identified the specific mathematical skills students are expected to have, along with the engineering context in which the skills are applied. Then, working with Miller, she identified the course in which those math skills are taught, and provided the students with explicit links to the lecture (or homework problem or example) from the math classes.

She and Miller are now working with OCW on the next step: making links between other courses listed on OCW. "This is where OCW is a great resource," Willcox says. "Because the math classes are all archived," it becomes feasible to create a "living Web document that will make this mapping something that the students can browse."

"Karen has listened very carefully to what we teach students who show up later in her classes, and this lets her use language more familiar to the students," Miller writes to SIAM News. "At the same time I've learned from Karen (among many other colleagues here at MIT) to use more engineering language and examples in the basic mathematics courses when I teach them. It's a two-way street and it's great to see some traffic on it!"

As to the variety of materials that faculty are willing to provide, a few members of the mathematics department have made entire textbooks available. Visitors to the site will find Daniel Kleitman's Calculus for Beginners and Artists and Strang's textbook Calculus, with the accompanying Instructor's Manual and Study Guide. (Faculty whose books are published by commercial publishers are not generally free to make the books available on the Web.)

Like the majority of MIT faculty, Tom Leighton, a professor of applied mathematics and head of the Algorithms Group in MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, has provided materials to OCW for courses he teaches. As a co-founder (and current chief scientist) of Akamai, he is also involved in OCW in a completely different way: Akamai is OCW's Web-hosting and content-distribution network provider, and captures aggregate usage data.

What Users Are Saying
"I was flunking out until I saw your notes. . . ." This is the gist of a pretty typical student message, says OCW communication director Jon Paul Potts. Variations ar-rive regularly from students everywhere, taking courses in most disciplines. All OCW visitors are encouraged to provide feedback on their experiences; OCW staff also conduct surveys and a limited number of in-depth interviews with users of all types.

Many students find themselves in need of some foundational concepts but don't have time to take an entire course, Margulies says. "They get what they need by working through Haynes Miller's problem sets, or watching Gil's lectures."
"As an undergraduate currently taking a linear algebra course," a student in the U.S. wrote, the additional online video lectures have helped greatly in clarifying the material."

In the words of a PhD student in hydrology: "I watched the 18.06 Linear Algebra lectures by Gil Strang and they are great. . . . I had never had this material formally, but I have taken several courses that rely heavily on its application. In this course the material is presented so clearly that it all just clicked."

Self-learners have written in from various parts of the world:
"Regarding Professor Arthur Mattuck's 18.03 Differential Equations course--Holy coordinates! This is the greatest. . . . I am a 56-year-old M.D. from northern Michigan who last had calculus in the 1970s. The video lecture productions are indispensable. The video presentation gives direction and proper emphasis. I love the illusion that I am right in class with the students and the professor."

From Azerbaijan: "[OCW] gives great opportunities for studying new things and improving my current education. Commercial distant education is too expensive for people in the country where I live, but what you did make[s] quality education really available. Thank you especially for the video lectures and courses that have study materials."

From India: "The video lectures on Lin-ear Algebra are a treat. I am getting back to mathematics after a gap of fifteen years. And I feel enormously empowered to have open access to this site."

An educator in the U.S. wrote:
"I think your OCW project is a great use of your resources. I run a math education Web site and I frequently receive emails from students in Third World countries asking for free textbooks. As just one person, I don't have the resources to give away textbooks, but now I will point such queries to your OCW site."

Unanticipated Benefits
The response to OCW has held many surprises, from the surge of traffic to the composition of the user groups to the extravagance of the enthusiasm, especially on the part of self-learners. Within MIT, too, the project has taken unanticipated turns. Back in 2001, when MIT's announcement of its intentions led to unprecedented feedback levels, MIT alumni were prominent among those expressing reservations. Some worried that their degrees would be devalued--MIT was giving itself away. Today, Margulies says, alumni are by and large enthusiastic about OCW. Many find the course materials an excellent way, years after graduation, to keep up with developments in their fields.

Current students quickly put the resources to use. They shop around for courses at registration time, catch up on missed or forgotten material, review for exams. For professors, OCW makes it easy to look at how other faculty approach a subject; an interesting sequence of topics can stimulate improvement in a course, as can inspection of the problem sets devised by others. Haynes Miller, who chairs the undergraduate curriculum committee for mathematics, finds OCW "a quick and convenient way for any of us to learn in detail what goes on in other classes on this campus. Even though we're all here in Cambridge, it is not so easy to find the level of detail offered up in OCW. And to really make useful connections, you need to get to this level of detail."

Five years ago, Gil Strang foresaw a possible downside of the 18.06 videotapes: "I now realize more clearly and urgently that students will have an alternative to attending lectures this fall," he wrote in SIAM News. Would he be lecturing to an empty room, while students watched the videos at their convenience, night or day?

Other faculty have had qualms about course attendance. Margulies says that a study of the impact on class attendance is planned for this fall. Meanwhile, two other professors whose taped lectures are part of their OCW course materials have kept track of attendance; one reports no drop in attendance, an observation that has been subjectively confirmed for 18.06 and 18.03.

Professors also prize the videotapes: "To my mind," Miller writes, in a tribute to the colleague whose lectures accompany the 18.03 materials, "one of the greatest things about this resource is that it gives faculty the chance to see a really wonderful lecturer at work."

Despite early estimates that ten years and $100 million would be needed to build MIT OCW, Margulies says that the project will be virtually complete in seven years (by the end of 2007), at a cost of less than $35 million. MIT has received major support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Mellon Foundation.

As to the future, Margulies indicates a copy of Malcolm Gladwell's 2000 book The Tipping Point on her office shelves. At MIT, she believes, OCW has reached its tipping point. It's now a question of the rest of the world. To date, MIT OCW has been translated into Chinese, Spanish, and Portuguese, and partnerships are being formed with Thailand, Japan, Vietnam, and, possibly, France. About forty institutions, six in the U.S., have created their own versions of OCW.--GRC


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