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Education Wants To Be Free

Love & War

By Richard S. Lee

Yesterday MIT, our favorite vocational school on the Charles, unveiled an ambitious 10-year initiative to make freely available over the Internet the materials for nearly all of its 2,000 courses. This includes lecture notes, exams, problem sets, simulations and even audio and video aids. In doing so, it has redefined the very nature of “distance learning” and has set the standard toward which Harvard and other institutions of higher learning should strive.

In recent years, colleges and universities have turned to the Internet as a potentially revolutionary teaching medium. Some, like Virginia Northern Community College, have taken the concept to an extreme, allowing students to enroll in and receive credit for college courses without ever stepping foot on campus. Other schools, like Stanford, Princeton, Yale and Harvard, have steered away from offering full-fledged courses, instead moving toward making certain educational materials available to alumni. The area has also been the target of a few commercial ventures.

But within this education revolution, the MIT plan is itself revolutionary. First, it rightly views “distance learning” as a means of learning—an educational resource, and nothing more. Just as computers in an elementary school classroom can never wholly replace a teacher, educational resources on the Internet can never replace the full experience of actually attending an accredited university.

Instead, MIT’s distance learning initiative is more along the lines of enhancement rather than replacement. Online course materials will compliment outside student-faculty interaction and allow non-MIT professors to explore the teaching innovations of colleagues.

For this reason, critics who argue that this type of distance learning is unfair to those who pay $30,000 in yearly tuition can rest easy. As we all know here at Harvard, there is a difference between “learning” and simply completing problem sets or attending lectures. The former requires discussing the material and engaging with peers and faculty, can be done far more easily on campus than on the Internet.

But what further sets the MIT plan apart from the pack of distance learning initiatives is that MIT intends to make all its course material freely available to the public. Some have argued that this raises thorny intellectual property concerns. That might be true, but MIT’s program is voluntary for professors, who will be retaining some control over their work.

Furthermore, there is a fundamental principle at stake beyond who owns the lecture notes—the principle that knowledge, particularly knowledge with educational value, should be as open and accessible as possible. It is an appeal to this principle that drives our natural impulse to protect public libraries and public school systems.

The Internet stands as a medium uniquely suited to enhancing education’s public sphere. The story of the online world’s success is wide and varied, but a large chunk of it has to do with the free and open dissemination of information—everything from computer software to constitutional documents to daily news stories. Institutions of higher learning would do well to place educational materials among this growing list, not in a for-profit or for-credit manner, but as a resource among resources.

This is not to say intellectual property is not a valid concern. Rather, the point is that there are a number of ways to address the issue without undermining the core insight of the MIT initiative. Professors could, for example, be more selective in posting unpublished or original material online. But to simply limit access to information, in the way that Harvard and other schools plan to give access only to alumni, doesn’t settle intellectual property concerns and runs antithetical to the very potential of the Internet.

Bravo, MIT. Let’s hope others soon follow suit.

Richard S. Lee ’01 is a social studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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