Every lecture, every handout, every quiz. All online. For free. Meet the global geeks getting an MIT education, open source-style.
By David Diamond
Lam Vi Quoc negotiates his scooter through Ho Chi Minh City's relentless stream of pedal traffic and hangs a right down a crowded alley. He climbs the steep wooden stairs of the tiny house he shares with nine family members, passing by his mother, who is stooped on the floor of the second level preparing lunch. He ascends another set of even steeper steps to the third level and settles on a stool at a small desk, pushing aside the rolled-up mat he sleeps on with one of his brothers. To the smell of a chicken roasting on a grill in the alley and the clang of the next-door neighbor's metalworking operation, Lam turns on his Pentium 4 PC, and soon the screen displays Lecture 2 of Laboratory in Software Engineering, a course taught each semester on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Here," he says, pointing at the screen. "This is where I got the idea to use decoupling as a way of integrating two programs."
In a huge brick house that Evan Hoff shares with three other guys in Nashville, the 20-year-old brings up the MIT Web site and connects to the same material Lam is studying halfway around the world. "This is the lecture on data abstraction," Hoff explains. "I went over this in community college, but that class only took it so far. This teaches you about the three different specification conditions, the things you put in documentation to let future programmers know how to use it. In community college we covered only two of them."
When MIT announced to the world in April 2001 that it would be posting the content of some 2,000 classes on the Web, it hoped the program - dubbed OpenCourseWare - would spur a worldwide movement among educators to share knowledge and improve teaching methods. No institution of higher learning had ever proposed anything as revolutionary, or as daunting. MIT would make everything, from video lectures and class notes to tests and course outlines, available to any joker with a browser. The academic world was shocked by MIT's audacity - and skeptical of the experiment. At a time when most enterprises were racing to profit from the Internet and universities were peddling every conceivable variant of distance learning, here was the pinnacle of technology and science education ready to give it away. Not the degrees, which now cost about $41,000 a year, but the content. No registration required.
"It's a profoundly simple idea that was not intuitive," recalls Anne Margulies, the former Harvard assistant provost and executive director of information systems who was hired to be OpenCourseWare's executive director. "At the time, the world was clamping down on information, limiting it to those who could pay for it." Soon foundation money was gushing in to support the initiative. MIT earned the distinction as the only university forward-thinking enough to open-source itself. To test the concept, the university posted 50 courses last year.
Lam Vi Quoc
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Smart and upbeat, Lam, 22, is the first member of his family to attend college. He is the youngest of six children of Chinese-Vietnamese parents who are retired from the business they ran making cartons. A student in the information technology department of Vietnam's Natural Sciences University, in Ho Chi Minh City, he received a $500 scholarship to buy his computer and a $100 scholarship toward his studies. Lam, who spends six days a week at school, was introduced to Laboratory in Software Engineering - aka 6.170 - when one of his professors downloaded the course materials onto the university's server and made it required reading. As leader of his software lab team, Lam helped create a program that allowed city residents to find bus routes by destination. After graduation, he hopes to continue his studies in either Singapore or England, but to do so, he'll need another scholarship - something he says is unlikely unless he is one of three students chosen to be a graduate assistant at his own university. If that doesn't happen, he'll shoot for an IT job in Vietnam. "Maybe if I work for three years," Lam says, "I will be able to have my own house and a car."
In September, as students arrive on the Cambridge campus for the start of school, MIT will officially launch OpenCourseWare with 500 courses, offerings like Nuclear Engineering Course 22.312: Engineering of Nuclear Reactors, and Political Science 17.251: Congress and the American Political System. (Like everything else at MIT, classes are typically referred to by number.) The school expects to add the remaining 1,500 courses over the next three years. If the pilot program is any indication, students from Nepal to Nebraska will be diving into the material.
And MIT will learn a few things, too, just as it did during OpenCourseWare's first year. One lesson of the beta test revolved around access, which in some parts of the world is costly and slow. A second issue: lack of assistance to Web-based students. Even the most brilliant university course can falter without the kind of intensive teaching support provided at a school like MIT. Then there are the nagging intellectual property headaches. How, for example, do you police Third World scam artists from hawking MIT degrees as if they were Calvin Klein knockoffs?
Like many other universities, MIT had ambitions for making money in the distance-learning business. It called in a consultant to scope out the terrain, and in 2000, Booz Allen Hamilton reported that MIT had missed the wave. That's when a group of faculty members and administrators - Hal Abelson, Steven Lerman, Toby Woll and Dick Yue - hit upon the idea of posting all courses online, free and available to all. MIT President Charles Vest signed on, but persuading the faculty was difficult. Some professors complained the program would burden them with extra work. Others worried that unpolished lectures would reflect poorly on the institution. Faculty authors were concerned that they would be giving away intellectual property and thus hurt sales of their textbooks. "This was probably the most widely discussed decision at MIT," recalls Abelson. By making the project voluntary for professors, most objections melted away.
The idea quickly attracted outside funding. The William and Flora Hewlett and the Andrew W. Mellon foundations ponied up a total of $11 million for the first two-year phase. (MIT kicked in another $1 million.) Those organizations are likely to continue supporting the initiative, which is expected to require an additional $20 million or so before the rest of the courses are posted by the end of 2006. The money will underwrite everything from helping faculty develop and digitize their materials to designing Web sites and hosting servers.
In some academic circles, MIT was viewed as making a masterful PR move. If so, the scheme worked brilliantly, because most of the world applauded; when I explained OpenCourseWare to a Turkish journalist, his immediate response was, "They should give the Nobel Prize to whoever came up with that idea."
One of the most popular offerings turned out to be Laboratory in Software Engineering, aka 6.170, a tough requirement for electrical engineering and computer science majors. Lam Vi Quoc, a fourth-year student at Vietnam's Natural Sciences University, relied on 6.170 lectures to supplement a software lab he was taking, and Evan Hoff, a software developer in Nashville, followed the course to improve his coding skills. In Karachi, Pakistan, a group of 100 students and professionals met weekly to study 6.170. In Kansas City, five members of the Greater Kansas City Java Professionals Association gathered monthly to take the course. In Mauritius, a tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean, Priya Durshini Thaunoo used 6.170 to prepare for a master's degree program at the University of Mauritius. Saman Zarandioon, an Iranian refugee living in Vienna, studied it to continue an education that was stalled by the Iranian government. And software developer Rahul Thadani in Birmingham, Alabama, took it to sharpen his skills.
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