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.
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.