How to take a course at MIT free -- at home

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You may not have the grades, the money or even the means to get to a physics class with one of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's best lecturers.

But if you have an Internet connection anywhere in the world, you can watch a video of the Dutch-born physics professor, Walter Lewin, swinging on a cable across the front of a lecture hall in his "Classical Mechanics" course to demonstrate that weight doesn't affect the time it takes a pendulum to complete a cycle of motion.

And you can do this for free.

Six years ago, MIT began breaking down the knowledge barrier by announcing it would make materials from its courses available free on the Internet.

A selection of open courseware offerings
  • MIT OpenCourseWare offers about 1,800 courses, some with audio and video.
  • iTunes U offers audio and video lectures from more than two dozen institutions at its iTunes store.
  • Carnegie Mellon University offers about 10 courses designed specifically to provide not only materials but also computerized instruction.
  • Tufts University offers more than 30 courses in areas as different as agriculture and dentistry.
  • Materials from the University of Notre Dame are generally in the humanities and social sciences, from women in Islamic society to ancient wisdom and modern love.
  • Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health provides materials from some of its most popular courses, ranging from global health to nutrition.
  • In addition to materials available on iTunes U, the University of California at Berkeley has posted videos of lectures of eight courses and plans to add others to YouTube.
  • Utah Open Courseware Alliance lists free offerings from seven universities: College of Eastern Utah, Dixie State College, University of Utah, Utah State University, Utah Valley State College, Webster State College and Western Governors University.
  • The Open Courseware Consortium has links to course materials at its participating universities in Australia, Austria, Canada, China, Colombia, France, Iran, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Netherlands, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Spain, Taiwan, Thailand, United Kingdom, the United States, Venezuela and Vietnam.
  • The Open University of the United Kingdom offers modules of some its courses free through OpenLearn. By April, 5,400 hours of materials are expected to be available.

Later this month, MIT will celebrate reaching its goal of having written portions, at least, of 1,800 courses -- virtually the entire course catalog, including materials from about 90 percent of its professors -- available free on its Web site.

"MIT used to be an ivory tower, like the Forbidden City in China," said Dr. Lewin. Now, he said, the public can see inside. "I think it's a wonderful thing. They get, by and large, very high quality stuff."

MIT's initiative has ignited a trend that has made course materials from universities around the world, including Carnegie Mellon, available for free on school Web sites or on consortium sites like YouTube and iTunes U, a service of Apple Computer.

The materials are known as "open courseware" or, more broadly, "open educational resources."

MIT's initial vision was that the courses would be viewed by other university instructors in hopes of improving teaching worldwide. But only 16 percent of users are educators. Nearly a third are students from other schools, and about half are self-learners.

"It came as a surprise to us there are so many self-learners out there. It wasn't intended to be distance learning," said Steve Carson, external relations director for MIT OpenCourseWare

Of the students, about 44 percent say they use it to complement a course they're already taking, while others say they are enhancing their personal knowledge or planning what they'd like to take.

Self-learner Rogelio Morales, 34, of Caracas, Venezuela, has been using the MIT site for more than two years and has tried five courses, including vision science, the design of ocean systems and the brain and cognitive sciences.

Mr. Morales is a metallurgical engineer and commercial diver who does underwater inspections.

From his MIT open courseware experience, he became involved in research and has presented that research at conferences. Now, he has an invitation from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts to participate in a three-month guest student program in underwater imaging.

Covering the costs

While using open courseware is free, making it is not.

MIT spends $4 million a year on it.

Efforts are being made to decrease the cost of providing the materials, including using free software developed at Utah State University to make the process of posting the materials easier.

"If we don't crack the sustainability nut, we'll be yesterday's fad," said John Dehlin, director of the Open Courseware Consortium, a collaboration of more than 100 schools in 20-plus countries.

However, open courseware doesn't appear to be a fading fad.

College professors already routinely share research at conferences, in professional journals and through collaborations.

Now their teaching also can be displayed in open courseware.

"It allows a certain level of peer review we always had in the research area, but for the most part, it was in the closet in the teaching area," said Candace Thille, director of Carnegie Mellon University's Open Learning Initiative.

Information, too, is becoming more available.

"It's transforming the culture of who owns knowledge. It's unlocking knowledge previously held in universities," said Cathy Casserly, program officer for education for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which has given $80 million over six years to various open educational resources efforts, including those at MIT and CMU.

Younger people are particularly attuned to the notion, said Mr. Dehlin.

"This idea of sharing the learning is something that resonates with this new generation of YouTube and iPod and blogcasts and wikis. Openness is becoming the ethic of the rising generation," he said.

The idea of sharing course materials over the Internet isn't new -- the University of California at Berkeley, for example, has tried various forms of sharing for a dozen years.

However, shared course materials are becoming more numerous and more accessible. Some of Berkeley's lectures now appear on YouTube and iTunes U.

"I receive letters from people who never thought they could get a college education this way. It's the finest thing that could happen in the field of learning," said Berkeley professor Marian Diamond, 81, who has taught for 60 years.

Some have watched the videos of her integrative biology course so closely that they remarked on how the noted brain researcher pulls a human brain out of a flowered hatbox.

But as MIT's OpenCourseWare Web site notes, "OCW is not an MIT education."

Universities do not provide free credit, degrees or certificates for open courseware work.

Rewarding for teachers

Exactly what is available varies widely not only among schools but within them.

Some of the courses are not the latest offered. Users typically don't get feedback from a professor, interaction with classmates or graded tests and assignments. However, some professors, including Dr. Lewin, do return e-mails, and, for some courses, outside Internet discussion boards are in early stages of development.

Most MIT listings do not include audio or video. But for Dr. Lewin, videos of full lectures from three courses, plus syllabuses, lecture notes, assignments and tests along with answers are posted on the MIT site. In addition, some of his videos are available on iTunes U.

Dr. Lewin, who has taught for 40 years at MIT, said he has received hundreds, if not thousands, of e-mails -- from China, Japan, India, Denmark, Germany, England, Turkey and other countries -- in response to the videos.

A high school student said Dr. Lewin's lectures were his "primary reason" for choosing to major in physics at the University of Nebraska. A writer in England thanked him for "reinvigorating my interest in physics." A Brazilian physics student wrote, "I've never seen a lecture as good as yours!"

Dr. Lewin said, "Sometimes they make me cry, they can be so moving."

The demand is huge.

"I think learning is one of the deepest instincts humans have. When they keep on learning, it's a great pleasure they get," said Berkeley physics professor Richard Muller.

His "Physics for Future Presidents" course has proven so in demand on YouTube -- more than 99,000 people have viewed the first lecture on atoms and heat -- that he has a popular book offer from a major publisher.

Berkeley's channel on YouTube, which includes videos for eight courses, has had 1.4 million views. Last year, Berkeley had 4.3 million views of video on its local site, and 10.3 million downloads of audio.

Since the iTunes Store's Web page began on May 30 listing a couple dozen of the more than 200 universities participating in iTunes U, there have been more than 5 million free downloads. Some iTunes U participants do not open all of their content to the public.

MIT OpenCourseWare averages 1 million visits a month; another 500,000 view translations of about 600 courses in Spanish, Portuguese, simplified Chinese, traditional Chinese or Thai.

Open educational resources are growing in the U.S., but they are growing even faster abroad, according to Mr. Dehlin. He said Korea is "on fire," Vietnam is about to come with a "very exciting initiative" and China is "very strong and active."

What's next?

The first wave of open courseware has made content available. Many expect the second wave to bring new innovations that will improve teaching and learning.

Carnegie Mellon is developing open educational resources designed to provide both information and instruction. Several years ago, it began posting all or parts of about 10 courses it developed for free use on the Internet, including instructional modules that offer users computerized practice, hints, instruction and other feedback.

In 2006-07, 67,880 users from 125 countries registered on the CMU Open Learning Initiative site. Registration is not required but it enables the user to return to his or her work.

CMU's program also enables instructors to use the materials in their courses, including providing class feedback. Of the users, 3,732 were in credit-bearing courses at other schools.

Through these courses, CMU is able not only to share its expertise but also to evaluate what teaching methods work best. In March, CMU will host a conference of learning science researchers and open educational resource providers.

Even as this trend takes off, open educational materials still face serious obstacles.

Some professors and universities balk at giving away their work product for free.

"It's still not intuitive to share the learning," said Mr. Dehlin. "I think MIT's largest contribution is sort of putting this very simple idea of sharing the learning on the map in public consciousness."

Some choose to protect at least some rights through copyrights available through Creative Commons, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit.

The Open University, an all-online school based in the United Kingdom, encourages use. Last year, it began offering course segments free through OpenLearn. Students who want the full course pay for it.

"OpenLearn is all about providing materials that can be downloaded, remixed and shared with others," said Jerard Bretts, OpenLearn program manager, in an e-mail.

"So we also want our users to take the videos from OpenLearn units and add them to YouTube themselves. We believe education is a social activity, and so we also have a presence on MySpace and FaceBook and other social networking sites."

Some predict open courseware eventually will be used to help students earn credentials for a fee if they take exams.

"Since universities essentially hold the monopoly on being able to award academic degrees and certifications, they might be in a position to be able to do that," said Gene Maeroff, author of "A Classroom of One" and a senior fellow at the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Columbia University.

"What you're going to see is a few entrepreneurial institutions of higher education that might be very respectable. Ten years ago, nobody would have thought anybody would be getting credits from a regular university for taking an online course, but look where we are now."

Eventually, open courseware offerings may become standard fare at universities.

"About five years from now, everyone's going to have one of these," Dr. Wiley said. "It's going to be part of their Web site, just like when you go to a university Web site, now you expect to find information about admissions, registration, tuition and fees."

Education writer Eleanor Chute can be reached at or 412-263-1955.


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