Collage of online learners in different situations, plus Krishna Rajagopal headshot and MIT OCW logo

How MIT Shares Its Course Materials With The World, For Free

Julia Brodsky

Krishna Rajagopal is a professor of theoretical physics at MIT who studies the very first moments of the newborn Universe. Since 2017, he has been MIT’s Dean for Digital Learning, leading MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW), a free publication of MIT courses and materials, open to the public around the globe. This year, MIT OCW celebrates its 20th anniversary, presenting a collection of materials from 2,500 courses led by 1,700 faculty members. 

Julia Brodsky: OCW was a revolutionary idea at its inception. Could you please tell me more about the history and the educational philosophy behind it? 

Krishna Rajagopal: OCW is one of the jewels of MIT, fully embodying its spirit of openness and its mission to unlock knowledge and empower minds. In 2001, the internet was young. The MIT president at that time, Charles Vest, asked a committee of faculty to think about something big that MIT should be doing that took advantage of the new opportunities the internet presented. Later, he remarked how surprised he was by the proposal the faculty came back with: to give away all MIT course materials for free. He said it took him awhile to realize what an extraordinary idea that was. These days, it feels natural; it is part of who we are. It is now woven into the fabric of MIT that when you teach here, you can share your materials with the world. 

Brodsky: Who are the users of the OCW nowadays? 

Rajagopal: First of all, it's not a secret, we use it ourselves. Whenever an MIT professor is asked to teach a new course for the first time, the first thing they do is go look at OCW and see how their predecessors have taught it. Whenever an MIT student is planning for their next semester, they can get a taste of the course. But the main users are outside MIT, and they reside all over the world. 

The OCW YouTube channel is the largest educational channel on YouTube, with over 3 million subscribers. Our courses on popular subjects, such as “Blockchain and Money”  with Gary Gensler or the “How to speak” lecture with the late Patrick Winston, attract millions of viewers. The OCW website itself gets about 2 million visits a month. There are no fees, not even a login. Our materials are used by middle and high school kids, by homeschoolers and retirees, by people of all ages who are curious about the world. They're also used by people in the workplace who are trying to pick up a skill to advance their career. During a period of global crisis, our platform helped students around the world who were locked down at home. In fact, in the early days of the pandemic, the number of OCW visitors rose by about 70%. 

A particularly important group of OCW users is our colleagues – educators around the globe. We contribute to an ecosystem of open educational resources to support other educators, allowing them to modify and reuse our material in their own way, amplifying the global impact. 

Brodsky: I understand how OCW courses share factual knowledge. But how do you share  MIT’s pedagogical techniques? 

Rajagopal: That’s a great question. We share lecture videos. When you're watching an MIT professor answering questions from the students, you get to see what's happening in that classroom. We feature an educators’ portal called OCW Educator with instructor insights, and a podcast called Chalk Radio. This way, our faculty can share their perspective with educators elsewhere. 

Another program of MIT’s Office of Digital Learning is  MITx, presenting MIT virtual courses  intended for the edX online platform. These courses include a discussion forum and online assessments, which we now use on campus too. For example, in our first year physics classes, we rely on MITx content a lot, giving our students a first look at new concepts and using MITx-style autograded homework to give them immediate feedback. And then most of the class time is spent on group discussion and problem-solving, where students learn how to make mistakes and recover from them under expert guidance. 

Brodsky: What are your future plans for OCW? 

Rajagopal: Our collection grew a lot over the past two decades, but we need a new modern platform – one with a search and discovery experience that makes it easy to navigate OCW and is mobile-friendly, accessible on any device. We are also working on repackaging the materials so that they could be downloaded onto personal devices in cases of unreliable internet connection. Furthermore, the updated MIT platform will preserve our tradition of being accessible to people with disabilities. We anticipate rolling out the new platform by the end of 2021. In addition, we plan to integrate OCW into learning management systems, so that educators can use the materials in a more natural way. We want OCW to always be a vibrant and current reflection of how and what we teach, and one that is always changing. For example, MIT recently introduced an entirely new center on social and ethical responsibilities in computing, which plans to infuse materials on addressing growing social needs into many of our computational courses. 

I am looking forward to a great second 20 years for OCW, supporting learners and educators around the world, empowering communities, and sharing the vigor and innovative spirit of MIT.

Julia Brodsky | Forbes


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