In 2002, when MIT decided to experiment with placing course contents on the Web for open access, the university's officials knew they were breaking new ground and had no idea how the effort would be received.
On Tuesday, school officials revealed plans to make available the university's entire 1,800-course curriculum by year's end. Currently, some 1.5 million online independent learners log on the MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) site every month and more than 120 universities around the world have inaugurated their own sites for independent learners. MIT has more than 1,500 course curriculums available online to date.
Who are MIT's independent learners? One MIT calculation found that 17% were educators elsewhere, 32% students everywhere, and 49% were self learners.
"About 40% of the MIT alumni population uses the site," said Steve Carson, the OCW's external relations director, in an interview Tuesday. "Usually they take courses they didn't have time for while they were students here." The courses are free of charge and no course credit is granted.
Other learners come from nations all over the world, from Antarctica to Darfur. He notes that the highest traffic in the United States comes from leading high-tech states Massachusetts and California. South Korea has a sizable base, accounting for a higher number of learners than, for instance, in China, its neighbor.
Many learners are college teachers and professors, who want to sharpen their own teaching courses and methods. In a typical example, physics professor Younes Attaourti of Marrakesh, Morocco, has used MIT materials for his courses on statistical physics and quantum theory.
The most popular OCW courses track the popular undergraduate curriculum at MIT. These include the introductory electronics engineering course "Circuits and Electronics," Linear Algebra, Physics 1, Introduction to Biology and the Principles of Macroeconomics.
Carson said MIT's teachers collect what they have created for their courses and make it available over the Web. Many online learners purchase text books for the courses they are monitoring and a recent MIT-Amazon link showed that about 2,000 text books were ordered by independent learners, demonstrating just how serious the learners are.
"Video and audio files are very popular," said Carson. "There are 21 courses with full video available." Typically, independent learners view videos with streaming media players and replay them on PCs, MP3s, or iPods.
The entire effort has altruistic overtones of intellectual philanthropy. MIT's Anne Margulies, executive director of the program, recently described the OCW program as knowledge "shared openly and freely. MIT is using the power of the Internet to give away all of the educational materials created here."
Other universities have joined MIT in what is becoming an international OCW movement. More than 100 mirror OCW sites have been established at universities globally. The OCW Consortium now includes many top U.S. universities including Harvard Law School, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Michigan State University, Tufts University, University of Notre Dame, University of California at Irvine, and Utah Valley State College.
Many foreign universities have jumped on the OCW bandwagon. More than 30 universities in China have joined the consortium and tiny Vietnam has more universities in the consortium than the U.S.
MIT has placed its OCW program on a separate computer installation that is controlled by a modified version of Microsoft Content Management Server. Technology provided by Akamai accelerates the MIT content and protects it from surges.