Down the infinite corridor of learning

Vijaysree Venkatraman

MIT’s OpenCourseWare, which provides those with Internet connectivity free access to some 1600 courses taught at one of the world’s top centres of learning, is an exciting initiative. To the intellectually curious, OCW offers the possibility of lifelong learning in a wired world.

Professor R.S. Kumar, the unassuming head of the computer science department of an engineering college founded by a South Indian industrial conglomerate, still remembers the fateful Google search from five years ago. Sitting at his desk in the Bannari Amman College of Technology in Tamil Nadu, he keyed in the search strings “computer science” and “course material.” Within minutes, he stumbled on a semester’s worth of first-rate course material on several subjects of interest — from software engineering to artificial intelligence — meticulously laid out on an Massachusetts Institute of Technology website.

The chance discovery gave him insight into a teaching model that places value on application, not just on theory. “You can say that I am an addict of ocw.mit.edu,” says Prof. Kumar, who uses some of the content to teach his graduate and post-graduate classes.

The MIT OpenCourseWare site (OCW) provides those with Internet connectivity free access to some 1600 courses taught at the 142-year-old campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. On this website, formalities like registration — necessary even for reading most American newspapers online — are dispensed with. There is no tuition fee. Unlike traditional distance learning, successfully working through the OCW course material — the lecture notes, reading assignments, the problem sets, and the final exams — will not earn the user any academic credits. Yet, if site traffic and user testimonials are anything to go by, this portal launched in September 2002 serves self-learners, students, and educators across the globe well.

Many find the “intellectual philanthropy” baffling — why would one of the world’s top universities give its teaching model and course material away free of cost? “The OCW philosophy stems from the institute faculty’s belief that knowledge should be free and open to all — not just to those who can afford it,” says Anne Margulies, the Director of MIT OCW. “Innovation and discovery are possible only if resources are shared.”

The Internet serves as an effective medium for knowledge dissemination. The MIT OCW site receives approximately 1.4 million visits each month from several countries, including those in sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East, with India ranking consistently among the top five users, says Steve Carson, Director of External Relations, OCW. Non-profit organisations have translated the content into many languages, increasing the impact and reach of this initiative.

MIT’s example has inspired other universities, including Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the Harvard Law School, and the Tokyo Institute of Technology, to initiate similar efforts. Some 150 like-minded universities, including those in China, Japan, and Spain, have formed an international consortium to publish their educational material online. Consortium members bring in valuable content that lies outside MIT’s traditional area of expertise. Even with universal subjects like basic sciences, there are different approaches to teaching the same material. Users can pick what works best for them.

Many courses are text only, but the physics video lectures by Prof Walter H.G. Lewin — with classroom demonstrations — bring in feedback that can best be described as fan mail. A high school student from India writes: “The day I become a big man I will give MIT a million dollars for this.”

Kandasamy Sivasathivel, a mainframe professional with Tata Consultancy Services, uses the site to brush up on his engineering fundamentals, as he will be pursuing an advanced degree this fall. Good textbooks are available everywhere, but the assignments on OCW make students think rather than mug up formulae mindlessly, he says. At work, he has started initiatives on the strength of knowledge gained from the site — particularly in Artificial Intelligence. Shaik Ibrahim, a 35-year-old Chennai businessman, has been using OCW from the pilot phase. “Some of the first courses I looked up were from the Sloan’s School of Management because I was an MBA student at Madras University back then,” he recalls. Now he visits the site to learn about relativity, robotics, or any topic that catches his fancy.

However, the academic riches on offer can sometimes seem overwhelming. “One of the future goals is to make the site more easy to use and facilitate reuse of the vast material,” says Ms. Margulies whose team works to ensure that there is no copyright violation. The consortium portal could become an academic resource of first choice as it grows organically with contributions from institutes across the globe, she adds.

Even supporters of OpenCourseWare believe there can be no substitute for interaction with professors and fellow students. “Good education is a contact sport,” says M.S. Vijay Kumar, director of the Office of Educational Innovation and Technology, MIT. But the creators of the consortium foresee the formation of global learning communities centred on the site’s contents.

Examinations will always be a reality for students — “an ordeal they have to get through,” as Professor Kumar points out. But thanks to MIT’s initiative, life-long learning — minus the exams — falls within the realm of possibility for the intellectually curious in a wired world.

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