MIT Open Courseware

Open: characterized by ready accessibility and usually generous attitude: as (1) : generous in giving  – Webster’s Online Dictionary

“The idea is simple: to publish all of our course materials online and make them widely available to everyone.” – Dick K.P. Yue, Professor, MIT School of Engineering

Between 1968 and 1972, an idealistic Stanford educated biologist named Stuart Brand published an amazing compendium of ideas called, The Whole Earth Catalog:  Access to Tools.  The title came from photos of our planet taken from space – appropriate, since it was Brand who launched a public campaign in 1966 to get NASA to release the pictures.

In his 2005 Stanford graduation speech, Steve Jobs said, “When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation…. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along. It was idealistic and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.”

One of the great notions that inspired Jobs and other idealists was the thought of putting computing power into the hands of “the people.”  That much has been accomplished.  Every kid with a smartphone holds more computing power in the palm of one hand than NASA had when they made those pictures in space.  Now, off course, we see plenty of less-than-ideal side effect of the digital age – unintended consequences that dreamers like Brand did not imagine.  I won’t repeat the headlines – if you’re reading this blog, you’ve seen them.

That is all the more reason why it’s a pleasure to learn how one of our finest universities has embodied the best of the information age dream in order to benefit people all over the world.  The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has freely posted class materials from every one of its courses online – MIT Open Courseware.

Sign on Canal Street, New Orleans, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Sign on Canal Street, New Orleans, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Under the “Courses” button, you can see class offerings by department.  I invite everyone to look at some of the courses.  The technical classes are vast and impressive, as one would expect, but they aren’t the only ones.  I saw more than one syllabus in the Literature section I plan to check out.  This is attractive enough, but I think the importance of MIT’s move goes beyond personal enrichment.

Our system of higher education is floundering; while technical jobs go unfilled for lack of qualified applicants, tens of thousands of students who thought a college degree was the door to a better life find themselves saddled with debts that amount to 21st century indentured servitude.  The recent congressional “fix” will make few besides college administrators and bank loan officers happy over the long run.  I saw a different model in play during earlier days of the tech boom.

The best boss I ever had, now an industry expert in semiconductor design rules, went to work with a two year degree in drafting.  A friend who was a senior systems analyst studied math in college for three years and then dropped out.  After that, he went to work in a hospital that wanted to computerize; when no one else knew what to do, he gave it a shot.  My own experience was similar.  Clearly this doesn’t apply to every field – you don’t want your doctor learning by trial and error – but inventiveness, ability, and the ability to learn are not guaranteed by a formal degree.  The lack of a degree does not proves those qualities are missing.

As I noted in my review of The Unwinding by George Packer, Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and co-founder of Paypal believes that education is America’s “latest bubble.”  He offers grants to people under the age of 20 with ideas that “could make the world a better place,” if they are willing to leave school for two years to strike out on their own.  I see parallels between education now and traditional publishing at the start of the ebook era.

The digital world we now inhabit brings multiple ways of doing more and more things.  The good people at MIT, who live at the proverbial cutting edge of technology, should be applauded for their decision to share their vast resources with anyone, anywhere.  Good dreams change, but they survive.  Forty-five years after the first Whole Earth Catalog, “Access to Tools” has a whole new shape.  I hope we see much more of the same.

9 thoughts on “MIT Open Courseware

  1. Morgan, it’s amazing how our interests coincide. I’ve been very interested in open access education for a while, and there’s a lot more of it out there than MIT’s. We are now seeing the slow rise of the MOOC, massive online open courses, often part of free online universities. The pioneers in this field are Udacity, founded by a Stanford computer science professor, and Coursera. Udacity is teaching hard-core advanced programming for free to tens of thousands (maybe now hundreds of thousands) of students, mostly outside the U.S. They are learning the same stuff as the pampered undergrads on the Stanford campus. One big difference: students who pass Udacity’s classes get no credential or paper with a prestigious name on it.

    At the secondary school level, Khan Academy is a leader. I used Khan Academy when I homeschooled my kids last year. Their primary emphasis is mathematics education but they go way, way beyond that. All online, all free.

    I’m not going to argue that online education is better, or maybe even as good as, face-to-face education with a real live teacher. But the opportunity here is this: traditional universities have gotten too expensive. Much of their core educational functions can be “outsourced” to online colleges, with massive efficiencies of scale. (Why do we need thousands of calculus professors each designing their own course and lectures to deliver to a few hundred students? Why not have one track and put it online for access to millions of students?)

    I believe there is a large and growing unmet demand for affordable higher education. I believe Udacity and Khan and their successors can meet that need. The main obstacle they face is bias: the intangible perception that a diploma from a recognized bricks-and-mortar college is worth more than one earned independently, online.

    We’ll see where this goes but I’d bet the farm it’s going to revolutionize education.


    • Thanks for sharing your explorations and experience. I knew there was a lot more out there, but I hadn’t really started to explore it.

      I think software in particular lends itself to online learning approaches, but several friends completed distance-learning MBA’s that were hybrid affairs – like one week on campus per year, then individual remote coursework, online conference seminars, and individual 1:1 sessions. They weren’t free, but they were recognized by major employers and geared toward people who needed to keep their day jobs.

      I’m positive you are right – that any revisioning of education is bound to have online resources at its core. Thanks for names of the groups you follow. I look forward to checking them out.


  2. I had totally forgotten the Whole Earth Catalog. I wish I still had my copy. It would be fun to look through. I recently heard about open on-line courses offered at i haven’t had time to really check these out, but I sure intend to. I will also look through the MIT offerings. Thanks for telling me about that.


    • I’ve heard of MOOC but haven’t explored it. Check Amy’s comments for other resources too.

      I found myself getting nostalgic remembering the Whole Earth Catalog too, but that’s like the days when I could work on my car with a few wrenches and the Idiot Volkswagen book – not coming back anytime soon! Still, this world of online learning is a wonderful resource now opening up!


  3. Morgan, I loved this post, but I think that open courses are terrific publicity more than impressive education.

    I teach exclusively online, so I have some experience with the idea of online tool delivery. While I applaud the self-motivated among us, most of these open courses have a dismal completion records. Students sign up thinking they can work at their own pace and interest level, but they drop out complaining of no interaction. Anyone who has ever spent a semester in an auditorium class can vouch for how poorly they compare to smaller classes where the instructor acts as a coach. Open courses are the digital equivalent of auditorium classrooms.

    Even small online classes have trouble with motivation and expectation. One of my past students called online learning “read, test, rinse, repeat.” To avoid becoming one of those classes, I added mandatory weekly chats. Now students audition their ideas about their readings without grade penalty, they get some practice leading discussions in a low-stakes environment, and they learn from each other. From the moment I changed the class to increase students’ interaction, I saw them learn to move past initial, easy, ideas and think more deeply.

    Sharing resources is amazing, but today’s “log on and explore” is a bit like yesterday’s “here’s a library.” Desire needs guidance. Tools aren’t where education is failing.


    • Thanks for your sharing your experience, a perspective I hadn’t really considered.

      I was recalling times I took software classes downtown after work at UC Davis extension. The classroom experience wasn’t what I was after, and those were very long days, so whenever I could find a decent “30 day book,” (like “Learn PERL Programming in 30 Days”), I would work through it in the comfort of home. Online study materials would have worked too. Also, for something like the MIT lit class on “Detective Fiction,” I may go in and cherry pick from the reading list. In both cases, the motivation is there, and it’s neat to have the tools available.

      You make a strong case that one size doesn’t fit all, which is important to remember.


  4. Thanks for another thought provoking post. I remember the catalog. Seems like a lifetime ago! I’m hearing a lot of first-hand accounts lately of corporations choosing new hires for mid to high level jobs based on a test they have specifically designed to rate required skills, almost in complete disregard of an applicant’s educational pedigree. Have you heard this? Seems like cherry-pickers who are immediately applying the open course knowledge to real world problems would benefit.


    • No, I had not heard of companies selecting applicants based on needed skills, but that is a much saner approach than the inflation of degree requirements that was the earlier mode. That is good news indeed.


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