Free Learning

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced on 4 April that it plans to post materials for nearly all its courses on a free Web site in the next few years. Although it's not offering full-fledged online courses, MIT's move marks a departure from the frenzy among universities to make money from distance education.

The plan grew out of the faculty's "concern over the growing privatization of knowledge," says Patti Richards, spokesperson for the MIT OpenCourseWare project. Materials from most of the 2000 MIT courses--from assignments to tests and videotaped lectures--will be posted over the next 10 years, starting with about 500 courses in the fall of 2003. Professors at other schools will be able to download and use the content, as long as they don't attempt to sell it. You'll still have to weather frosty Boston winters to get that MIT diploma, however: The initiative will offer no online degrees or class credits.

So what does MIT get for its efforts, which could cost as much as $100 million that the university hopes to raise through private donations? The objective, says Richards, is to give students and teachers worldwide, particularly those in developing countries, access to educational resources they might never get otherwise. MIT electrical engineering professor Paul Penfield Jr. says most professors supported the plan at MIT, the campus that's home to the open source software movement.

MIT has made a bold statement in the debate about what information on the Internet should be free, says Stephen Ehrmann, vice president of the Teaching, Learning, and Technology Group, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that helps colleges assimilate technology into their curricula. "I hope other universities will find a cheaper way to do this," he says.

Related sites

OpenCourseWare prototype