MIT OpenCourseWare in the New Era of Online Learning

bridges vol. 34, July 2012 / Feature Articles

By Steve Carson


MIT OCWOn April 4, 2001, MIT announced an online learning proposal that flew in the face of conventional wisdom regarding the then-nascent field of online education. Rather than pursuing a for-profit distance learning venture of the kind pursued by many top universities at the time, the Institute proposed using the Internet to share the by-products of its campus teaching – including syllabi, lecture notes, assignments, and exams – free of cost and using open license that encouraged redistribution and modification. MIT saw the effort as a way to improve formal and informal learning worldwide, primarily by providing resources to educators, and also as a way to encourage other universities to share their intellectual riches rather bestowing them only on those who could afford to pay.

This September, MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) will reach the 10-year anniversary of the initial publication of the proof-of-concept site, which was launched September 30, 2002. That publication of materials from 50 MIT courses was followed a year later by the official launch of the site with materials from more than 500 MIT courses. Today the site contains materials from more than 2,100 of MITs graduate and undergraduate courses, including video recordings of the complete lectures from 60 of the most-visited courses on the site. MIT OpenCourseWare includes hundreds of thousands of resources, including more than 18,000 lecture notes, 10,000 assignments, and 1,000 exams. The site also shares other digital assets such as simulations, animations, and sample code originally developed to serve MIT's enrolled students.

These materials have attracted a tremendous amount of interest in the past 10 years. In 2011 the site received more than 18.5 million visits, and it has received more than 11 million in the first half of 2012. In total, an estimated 125 million individuals have accessed OCW content either on the site directly, through redistributors such as iTunes and YouTube, on one of OCW's translation affiliate sites, or from educators who have brought OCW content into their classrooms. Visitors to OCW come from every nation and territory on the globe, with about 60 percent of traffic originating outside of the United States, and the OCW staff has distributed more than 300 complete copies of the site on hard drives to universities in bandwidth-constrained regions.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. Already registered? Login with your user details at the top right of our site. Thank you for your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest}

One of many video lectures by Prof. Walter Lewin at MIT OCW.


In the early days of the program, MIT OpenCourseWare was the only such offering on the Web, and one of a handful of projects – including webcast.berkeley, the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University, and Rice University's Connexions – that would eventually be drawn together, largely by the vision of Marshall Smith and Cathy Casserly of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, into the Open Educational Resources movement. Other movements were just coalescing to support the open publication of research and textbooks.

Now, 10 years later, a dizzying array of open educational opportunities has emerged on the Web, spurred by the Internet's capacity to deliver content widely and cheaply, Web 2.0 technologies' abilities to connect unprecedented numbers of individuals and empower them to work collaboratively, and advances in artificial intelligence and adaptive learning technologies. More than 280 universities and organizations worldwide are now sharing educational materials in an OpenCourseWare model, and have collectively shared content from over 21,000 courses. Informal open educational communities such as OpenStudy and Peer 2 Peer University have emerged, and new approaches to assessment and credentialing based on portfolios and badges are under development.

Perhaps the most dramatic of the recent developments in the open education space is the appearance of massively scalable courses that enroll tens of thousands of learners. Stanford offered three of these so-called MOOCs1 in the fall of 2011, the largest of which – an artificial intelligence course – initially enrolled more than 160,000 students. In December 2011, MIT announced the creation of MITx, an Institute effort to offer massively scalable courses, and enrolled more than 120,000 students in the first offering: a circuits and electronics course. These MOOCs bring together the content distribution, community, and adaptive learning capabilities of the Web into integrated offerings that can reach an unprecedented number of learners.

MIT can take a measure of pride in the role MIT OpenCourseWare has played in helping to catalyze this rich field of informal education offerings. Ten years ago, if a learner was unable to physically attend a class, options were few and far between. And if a learner couldn't afford to pay for a class, there were almost no alternatives. Today, free learning opportunities on every subject imaginable abound on the Internet and are accessed by millions. However, this rich new informal learning environment poses new challenges to the MIT OpenCourseWare program. In an era of so many educational resources, many employing new technologies that make them far more dynamic than MIT's offering, MIT is challenged to better express and enhance the program's unique value.

MIT OpenCourseWare's model is a cost-effective way of placing large amounts of educational information online. Operating costs of the project are about $4 million a year, a significant budget for a non-revenue-generating enterprise, but a relatively small figure when compared to the investments made by the community in developing the shared curriculum. Rather than investing resources in instructional design and creation of highly interactive formats, MIT OpenCourseWare's resources are directed toward sharing the widest possible swath of MIT's content in the simplest, most widely accessible format – largely as PDF documents.

For this reason, despite all of the more recent entrants into the open education space, MIT OpenCourseWare remains the only open courseware site that comprehensively presents the curriculum of an entire university – which is one key to the site's unique value. The site provides a valuable window not only into academic subjects, but into an academic community. Visitors to the site see not just information about the subjects taught at MIT, but also how MIT educators present that information to the Institute's students. Visitors can observe across disciplines how the MIT community addresses complex challenges such as energy, climate change, and cancer, making the site a unique resource for other educational communities and providing opportunities to compare practices.

Yet, MIT OpenCourseWare will need to participate in the more dynamic educational ecosystem developing around it. To do this, the program has taken the approach of partnering with complementary open education programs. In 2010, OCW began pairing some of the most robust sets of course content with online study groups provided by a start-up called OpenStudy; the largest of these study groups now has 15,000 participants. OCW has also aligned some of its content to free and open text books published by Flat World Knowledge. These partnerships allow individual programs to focus on whichever aspects of the complete educational offering they want to emphasize, while offering a more robust experience for the independent learners.

Due in large part to the impact of recent massive online course offerings from Stanford and MIT, universities are again scrambling to position themselves in the online space. Indeed, in some ways, the situation today feels like a repetition of 10 years ago. Stanford is recruiting other major institutions to join them in offering massively scalable courses through their Coursera platform, and so far Princeton, the University of Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania have signed on. One Stanford professor has spun off his own company, Udacity, which offers massively scalable courses. Harvard has joined MIT to create a nonprofit organization, edX, that will also provide a platform for massively scalable courses.

There are indications, though, that the real focus may not be online but rather on campus. The press release announcing the edX collaboration highlighted how the effort was expected to improve the experience of traditional students:

EdX will enhance the traditional residential model of undergraduate education on both campuses by supporting an unlimited number of experimental online approaches to teaching that can be used by Harvard and MIT faculty and which will benefit students in Cambridge and Boston. It will also have the benefit of providing global access to some of the world-class instruction that already occurs in Cambridge and Boston, but which is only one aspect of the full Harvard College and MIT experience.

Here, also, MIT OpenCourseWare provides unique value. Because the program is closely tied to campus instruction at MIT, it provides the Institute itself with a robust view into the current state of instruction across the entire institution. OCW affords a topic map of subjects addressed, a unified digital repository of MIT's educational materials, and a resource for tracking ongoing curricular change. MIT OpenCourseWare also supplies MIT with a unique source of content to use in undertaking online experiments such as MITx; as new educational tools and approaches developed in these experiments are deployed on campus, OCW will track and disseminate how the MIT educational community is changing.

In the coming decade, MIT OpenCourseWare is poised to be a significant piece of the infrastructure supporting educational innovation on the MIT campus. And through a continued focus on providing the most comprehensive collection of educational material to the world, OCW will also remain a landmark open educational offering worldwide.


The author, Steve Carson, is external relations director for MIT OpenCourseWare (



1. Massive Open Online Course – a name borrowed from, and perhaps more applicable to, a somewhat different predecessor course model.

| << Back to previous text |