In a move that could transform the way universities use the Internet, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced yesterday that it would offer nearly all of its course materials online for free public use.
MIT’s $100 million commitment to the project, which is to be completed over 10 years, will make lecture notes, video lectures, course outlines, reading lists, tests and assignments for more than 2,000 courses readily available to those outside of the MIT community. The bold initiative is the latest in a series of plans for online learning proposed by several other major universities, including Yale, and is a departure from the notion of Internet-based learning as a moneymaking enterprise.
“We see it as source material that will support education worldwide, including innovations in the process of teaching and learning itself,” MIT President Charles Vest said in a press release.
Yale is already a member of the University Alliance for Life-Long Learning, which also includes Oxford, Princeton and Stanford universities. The non-profit group, led by former Merrill Lynch president Herbert Allison ’65, will soon offer non-credit courses to alumni, using the Internet to give graduates access to specially designed courses at a price.
While hundreds of universities offer course material on the Internet, that information is available only to students and faculty at the institution. Until MIT’s announcement yesterday, no university had revealed plans to make such vast amounts of course material public.
The move could lead to similar initiatives at other universities, said Patricia Richards, communications director for MIT’s Lab for Computer Science.
“We’re putting this out there, and it’s a model for universities who might want to do the same thing,” Richards said. “If other universities did the same thing, there would be a great repository for information.”
Yale administrators, including President Richard Levin and Provost Alison Richard, Yale’s chief academic and financial officer, said they were intrigued by MIT’s decision. While neither would speculate if Yale would ever adopt a similar policy, they would not rule out the possibility.
“There is probably room for all kinds of different approaches because nobody knows quite what will come out of [online learning],” Richard said.
Levin pointed to the difference between MIT’s plan and the alliance to which Yale belongs.
“We would use the Internet to create online discussions, and our thinking is much more interactive,” Levin said. “The MIT approach is just making it available to anyone who wants it.”
The issue of intellectual property is perhaps the biggest potential stumbling block for the establishment of comparable policies at Yale or anywhere else. The MIT initiative allows professors to choose whether or not to participate, but the vast majority of MIT professors have already signed onto the plan, and it is not a major point of contention among the university’s faculty, said Richards, the MIT spokeswoman.
By posting all course materials on the Internet, professors risk exposing unpublished material. At Yale, professors have taken issue with unauthorized attempts to post class lecture notes online.
Last spring, when Versity.com paid note takers in major lecture courses, a few faculty members, including history professor Jonathan Spence objected. Yale later threatened to sue Versity, and notes were eventually taken off the Web site.
While MIT has not ruled out using the Internet to generate revenue, that university’s initiative bypasses entirely the revenue-oriented approach that the University Alliance for Life-Long Learning also seeks to minimize.
In MIT’s announcement, professor Steven Lerman, chair of the MIT faculty, expressed concern for the growing “privatization of knowledge.”
“We also need to take advantage of the tremendous power of the Internet to build on the tradition — in American higher education of open dissemination of educational materials and innovations in teaching,” Lerman said.