Boston: Gilbert Strang is a quiet man with a rare talent: helping others understand linear algebra. He has written half a dozen popular college textbooks, and for years a few hundred students at the elite Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been privileged to take his course.
Recently, with the growth of computer science, demand to understand linear algebra has surged. But so has the number of students Strang can teach. An MIT initiative called “OpenCourseWare” makes virtually all the school’s courses available online for free - lecture notes, readings, tests and often video lectures. Strang’s Math 18.06 course is among the most popular, with visitors downloading his lectures more than 1.3 million times since June alone.
From Istanbul to Kolkatta
Strang’s classroom is the world. In his Istanbul dormitory, Kemal Burcak Kaplan, an undergraduate at Bogazici University, downloads Strang’s lectures to try to boost his grade in a class there. Outside Kolkatta, graduate student Sriram Chandrasekaran uses them to brush up on matrices for his engineering courses at the elite Indian Institute of Technology.
Many “students” are college teachers themselves, like Sheraz Ali Khan at a small engineering institute in Peshawar, Pakistan, and Noorali Jiwaji, at the Open University of Tanzania. They use Strang and other MIT professors as guides in designing their own classes, and direct students to MIT’s courses for help.
Others are closer to MIT’s Cambridge, Massachusetts, campus. Some are MIT students and alumni, while others have no connection at all like Gus Whelan, a retiree on nearby Cape Cod, and Dustin Darcy, a 27-year-old video game programmer in Los Angeles who uses linear algebra regularly in his work.
John Hopkins, Tufts and Notre Dame also hop onto the online bandwagon
There has never been a more exciting time for the intellectually curious. The world’s top universities have come late to the world of online education, but they are arriving at last, creating an all-you-can eat online buffet of information.
And mostly, they are giving it away. MIT’s initiative is the largest, but the trend is spreading. More than 100 universities worldwide, including Johns Hopkins, Tufts and Notre Dame, have joined MIT in a consortium of schools promoting their own open courseware. You no longer need a Princeton ID to hear the prominent guests who speak regularly on campus, just an Internet connection. This month, Yale announced it would make material from seven popular courses available online, with 30 more to follow.
Full lecture courses on YouTube
As with many technology trends, new services and platforms are driving change. Last spring marked the debut of “iTunes U,” a section of Apple’s popular music and video downloading service now publicly hosting free material from 28 colleges. Meanwhile, the University of California, Berkeley recently announced it would be the first to make full course lectures available on YouTube. Berkeley was already posting lectures, but YouTube has dramatically expanded their reach.
If there is not yet something for everyone, it is only a matter of time. On iTunes, popular recent downloads include a climate change panel at Stanford, lectures on existentialism by Cal-Berkeley professor Hubert Dreyfus, and a performance of Mozart’s requiem by the Duke Chapel Choir. Berkeley’s offerings include 48 classes, from “Engineering Thermodynamics” to “Human Emotion.”
Limitations exist, but advantages outweigh
YouTube, iTunes, OpenCourseWare, none are the full college experience. You cannot raise your hand and ask a question. You cannot get a letter of recommendation. And most importantly, almost everywhere, you cannot get credit or earn a degree.
That caveat, however, is what has made all this possible. When the Internet emerged, experts predicted it would revolutionize higher education, cutting its tether to a college campus. Technology could help solve one of the fundamental challenges of the 21st century: providing a mass population with higher education at a time when a college degree was increasingly essential for economic success.
Today, the Internet has indeed transformed higher education. A multibillion-dollar industry, both for-profit and nonprofit, has sprung up offering online training and degrees. Figures from the Sloan Consortium, an online learning group, report about 3.5 million students are signed up for at least one online course or about 20% of all students at degree-granting institutions.
But it has not been as clear what role, if any elite universities would play in what experts call the “massification” of higher education. Their finances are based on prestige, which means turning students away, not enrolling more. How could they teach the masses without diminishing the value of their degree?
But MIT’s 2001 debut of OpenCourseWare epitomized a key insight: Elite universities can separate their credential from their teaching and give at least parts of their teaching away as a public service. They are not diminishing their reputations at all. In fact, they are expanding their reach and reputation.
It turns out there is extraordinary demand for bits and pieces of the education places like MIT provide, even without the diploma. OpenCourseWare’s site gets more than 1 million hits per month, with translated versions getting 500,000 more. About 60 percent of users are outside the United States. About 15 percent are educators, and 30 percent students at other universities. About half have no university affiliation.
“I think the fundamental realization is that distance learning will solve the problem of access to certification, but there’s a larger problem, which is access to information,” says Steve Carson, director of external relations for the MIT initiative.
“If you’re going to work as a public health professional, you need the certification,” Carson says. “If you’re working in a community” say, in Africa “you don’t need the certification. You just need access to the information.”
Originally intended for teachers
Though it has found a wider audience, OpenCourseWare was originally intended for teachers. The idea was not just to show off MIT’s geniuses but to share its innovative teaching methods. After examining an MIT course called “Machine Structures,” Khan, the Pakistani professor, redesigned his lab assignments for a computer science class to get students more involved, asking them to design and build their own microprocessors.
MIT’s free offerings focus mostly on well-organized texts like syllabuses and readings, along with an expanding video lecture collection. Others, like Stanford and Bowdoin College in Maine, provide more polish, editing and features.
Berkeley, meanwhile, is focused less on bells and whistles than on ramping up its ability to roll out content with a system that automatically records and posts lectures. Berkeley’s eight YouTube courses drew 1.5 million downloads in the first month, said Ben Hubbard, co-manager of the webcast.berkeley program, and the school is being inundated with requests to post more.
Cost and logistics stumbling blocks
A big obstacle is cost. Professors are reluctant to participate unless staff are provided to help with logistics. A major expense is video camera operators, unless schools can persuade lecturers to stand still at the lectern. MIT estimates OpenCourseWear costs a hefty $20,000 (euro13,890) per course. Money from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation started the project, but from now on it will rely mostly on contributions from MIT’s budget and endowment, and from visitor donations.
But there are direct benefits. Small schools like Bowdoin can use iTunes to show prospective students the richness of their offerings. MIT reports half its incoming students have already checked out OpenCourseWare.
Meanwhile, half of MIT alumni use OpenCourseWare, too. And alumni who stay connected with the intellectual life at their alma maters are more likely to donate.
MIT and other schools also emphasize the services benefit their paying customers _ the students. On-campus use at MIT and Berkeley spikes during exams, as students review lectures. Fears that technology would hurt class attendance have proved unfounded, at least at MIT, where 96 percent of instructors reported no decline.
Will the free offerings of elite universities ever reduce demand for the full and full-price experience at places like MIT? Carson doubts it. Networking, late-night arguments over pizza, back-and-forth with professors _ that is where the real value lies, and even MIT’s technology may never catch up with that.
For teachers like Strang, his expanded reach is no more than a minor inconvenience occasional e-mailed questions from “students.” And it’s a major reward.“My life is in teaching,” he says. “To have a chance do that with a world audience is just wonderful.”