Spreading the Wealth

Four years after unveiling a plan to share course materials with the world, MIT assesses its impact.
April 7, 2005

Four years after the Massachusetts Institute of Technology unveiled a plan to make all its course materials available online for all the world to use, Anne H. Margulies still gets asked one question more than any other: "Why would MIT give this all away?"

"I got that very question from my cab driver on the way over here," Margulies, executive director of OpenCourseWare, said at a luncheon this week sponsored by the National Academies Forum on Information Technology and Research Universities. She spent the session both answering that question and explaining to the government officials and technology administrators in the room why MIT officials, in the face of a countervailing movement to "lock information and knowledge down," continue to believe so passionately in what they call "intellectual philanthropy."

First and foremost, says Margulies, "this advances our core institutional mission of disseminating knowledge and education." But it has benefited MIT in other ways, buffing its public image, building collaboration even among its own professors, even (unexpectedly) attracting students: One in seven of MIT freshmen surveyed last year said the existence of the OpenSourceWare effort had influenced their decision to enroll.

With the zeal of a proselytizer, Margulies shared a mix of impressions and statistics about MIT's quicker-than-expected progress in reaching its goal of putting all course material online free, and about the project's "outcomes," the latter drawn from a newly released survey of users of the site. 

The gist is that four years into what was originally to be a 10-year, $100 million project, MIT has put nearly 1,000 of its 1,800 courses online, and is on track to finish the work of building the site by 2008 at a cost of $35 million. (The university is just beginning the work of estimating the costs of sustaining the OpenCourseWare project in a "steady state" once the buildout is finished, but expects, once the foundation money dries up, to absorb most of the annual costs in as its regular budget.) The site gets about 400,000 unique visits each month, or about 20,000 a day. 

The individual course pages contain items commonly available on other universities' sites like syllabi and calendars, but also more unusual features like videotaped lectures, laboratory simulations, lecture notes (either provided by the instructor or taken by staff members of OpenCourseWare) and even exams -- sometimes with answers. MIT "scrubs" the material to make sure that it either complies with its Creative Commons intellectual property license or is removed from the site.

The university's project has spawned sites in Spain and China that are providing native language versions of some MIT courses (with a third, still unendorsed by MIT, beginning in Taiwan, and another expected to be announced in Japan next month). 

It has also helped encourage dozens of other colleges in the United States and worldwide to join what Margulies calls "this new movement toward open sharing of knowledge and information." Major efforts are under way at Utah State University, Foothill-DeAnza Community College District and Carnegie Mellon University, among others.

Understanding the Impact

To try to gauge the effect of the open courseware initiative, MIT last fall surveyed about 5,000 users of the site. Although MIT initially designed the project to serve other educators, it found that nearly half of the site's users are what it calls "self learners" -- individuals seeking to educate themselves by tapping into course materials from one of the world's most prestigious universities.

Margulies says MIT has received "tear jerking, heartfelt" e-mail messages from some of these people -- those who are physically disabled, or in countries with intense political strife that limits other kinds of learning -- who say they "never thought they'd have access to such high-quality materials."

Only 36 percent of those using the materials are in North America. The rest come from East Asia and Western Europe (16 percent each), South Asia and Latin America (11 percent each), Eastern Europe (4 percent), and the remainder from other regions.

About a third of the site's users are students currently enrolled somewhere, and about 15 percent are educators. While the self learners used the site primarily to "enhance personal knowledge," as one might guess, enrolled students and educators took advantage of the MIT site for a range of reasons:

Students' reasons  
    Complement current course 43.7%
    Enhance personal knowledge 32.1%
    Plan course of study 12.4%
    Substitute for course not offered 8.2%
    Other 3.7%
Educators' reasons  
     Enhance personal knowledge 25.0%
     Develop a course    22.8%
     Prepare for a specific class 17.8%
     Enhance research 13.8%
     Develop curriculum    9.3%
     Advise students 4.3%
     Develop educational technology 3.6%
     Other 3.4%

MIT actively encourages instructors at other institutions (though only nonprofit ones) to use its course materials and even adapt them -- as long as they, in turn, make their course materials available freely on the Web. "Much as researchers build on the work of other researchers -- 'stand on the shoulders of giants' -- we want people to add their own material and improve" on MIT's work," Margulies says.

Faculty participation in the MIT venture is voluntary, but about two-thirds of MIT professors have their courses online now. By offering to do much of the work for professors, the OpenCourseWare effort has managed to limit the time faculty members typically spend on getting materials for a course online to under five hours.

And peer pressure is building, Margulies says, not just to participate, but to bolster the look and content of their courses. "There has been a wholesale improvement of the materials," she says. Some of that movement is driven by faculty members' "own competitive pride of looking at what their colleagues are doing," she said, and some results from other sources. "Students are asking faculty members why their courses aren't up."

Margulies gushes, and almost blushes, when she reads some of the ways users of the site have described it in e-mail messages to the OpenCourseWare staff: "Eighth wonder of the world," "coolest thing on the Internet," "worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize," "like falling in love."

"We've heard all of those hundreds of times," Margulies says. "Well, except for 'like falling in love' -- we've only gotten that one once. We're a bit concerned about that person."


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