As students across Canada trudge back to class, a U.S. initiative is taking flight that could revolutionize public and corporate education around the world.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which decided in 2001 to put all its courses on the Internet, this month moves its OpenCourseWare (OCW) project from pilot to full production (ocw.mit.edu/index.html).
Within a few years, the entire MIT curriculum will be readily available to anyone -- for free. By the end of September, 500 undergraduate courses will be on the Net, without any signup procedure. The remaining 1,500 will come on stream over the next few years.
Note what OCW is -- and what it isn't. It is a collection of genuine MIT course materials, some highly current, others maybe one or two years old. It is not a way to get credits, teacher contact or classroom participation.
Nevertheless, OCW is amazing. Every course has at least a description and calendar, lecture notes, reading lists and assignments. Many go a lot further. Star linear-algebra professor Gilbert Strang delivers an entire term of lectures on video. A course on urban planning showcases all its students' Web-based projects. A software engineering course is already world renowned for its effectiveness. According to an article in Wired magazine, it helped a computer science professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., prepare better lectures; a bunch of working Java programmers in Kansas City to team up to improve their skills; and a student in Ho Chi Minh City to build an application that helps residents pick the right buses to get where they want to go.
Many post-secondary schools have put some courses on the Net, typically in traditional learning formats that you pay for. More ambitious, Canada's Edusource project will link institutions nationwide to let teachers share materials through a common set of technology standards. It recently announced a number of international partnerships. And in October, a Commonwealth-wide virtual university is to be announced, possibly with the Edusource standards.
But no one matches MIT's simple, all-encompassing mission. "We are doing this because we see it as part of our mission: to help to raise the quality of higher education in every corner of the globe," says its president Charles Vest.
MIT's 2001 decision to embark on this path came at a crucial time, comments Jutta Treviranus, interim director for academic technology at the University of Toronto. "There was widespread fear and misperception because of the Internet. Faculty discussions were about how to protect our intellectual property, will we become redundant, will people steal our stuff? MIT shifted the entire political atmosphere within the academic community."
Besides sharing course materials, MIT will encourage and help others to do the same. The university will codify and freely share the how-tos of the OCW's design and implementation. These include home-grown software tools and ways to tackle legal and organizational hurdles such as copyright and other intellectual property issues.
The OCW uses open licensing terms that encourage others to build on its materials with "derivative works" while forbidding resale. OCW executive director Anne Margulies says: "We are thinking about how to help learning communities form around the content without having MIT bear the financial and organizational burden. We'd like to be part of a federation of like-minded institutions using common standards so materials can be easily exchanged."
One partnership is with the University of Utah, where assistant professor of instructional technology David Wiley is building an Internet environment to provide people-to-people support for the OCW's content through voluntary, self-organizing communities of interest.
Whether Dr. Wiley's idea succeeds is almost secondary. Without the critical mass of learning materials from the OCW, such experiments will simply not be possible. A new door has been opened, and Dr. Wiley's is but one glimpse of the opportunities on the other side.
Canadian universities -- or, at least, one Canadian university -- should emulate MIT's example. The benefits would be huge. Leading academics, such as Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, say that investments in higher education improve our economic productivity, prosperity and competitiveness.
How about open education as a way to improve the productivity of learning?
Opening the treasure trove of (remember, taxpayer-funded) academic knowledge would, for a relatively modest investment, improve the productivity of academia itself, while providing a whole new array of knowledge resources to self-starters and employees across the country.
By preparing their materials for public display, and also by having easy access to the materials of others, faculty members will inevitably improve course quality while saving time -- through reuse of others' good stuff -- in the preparation of class materials. Serendipity will provide additional benefits. Ms. Margulies tells a story of two professors in superficially unrelated fields who didn't even know one another; they discovered that they were working on the same problem after perusing the OCW curriculum.
Were a leading school's entire curriculum to go on-line, Canada's Edusource initiative, which promotes sharing among volunteer faculty across the country, would receive a big shot in the arm. This would really fly if the on-line curriculum used Edusource's standards. Opening an entire university curriculum would also provide big benefits for companies and their employees. Corporate training departments and individual learners would gain a vast new resource for knowledge and skill development. And as collaborative learning models like those proposed by Utah's Dr. Wiley take form, the "productivity" of lifelong learning will accelerate.
Of course, all this takes money. MIT was aided by grants in the tens of millions from well-heeled national foundations. No Canadian university is anywhere near as well endowed as the MITs, Stamfords and Harvards of the world. Our schools need to make tough choices about every fundraising priority.
Maybe this is one tough -- albeit unconventional -- choice that's worth making.
David Ticoll is a consultant, speaker and author