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Monday, October 11, 2010

College lectures, sans the expense

David Brooks

It’s common for folks of my age to say, with more than a hint of “nudge-nudge-wink-wink” sensibility, that the most important learning we did in college took place outside the classroom.

But a lot of that classroom time was pretty cool, too, and we graybeards look back on it – well, some of it – with nostalgia.

Nowadays, however, nostalgia isn’t necessary, because a surprising amount of higher education can be found online for free.

I even stumbled on university lectures while playing with Roku, a device that puts the Internet on TV sets. (I found that watching a talk about “The Philosophy of Death” is approximately as exciting as watching “Gilligan’s Island” reruns, except that the real professor was funnier than the fake one.)

New Hampshire universities aren’t participating in this phenomenon so far as I can tell, but our geeky friends in Cambridge have plunged headlong into it.

In fact, MIT invented the form a decade ago with its OpenCourseWare program, which now has 2,000 MIT courses, including accompanying course materials, on the Web for free. The word “open” is important; there’s nothing proprietary or closed, unlike systems such as Blackboard, which UNH and other schools use to provide online courses to students.

Now OCW is reaching out to see how much interest the business world has in what might be called Academia 2.0.

“This is a little different for us than the sort of groups we usually talk to,” said Dan Carchidi, publications director for OpenCourseWare.

He is one of the featured speakers at TechWorld 2010, a large two-day technical-business conference at Pease Tradeport this weekend .

I called him because he stood out among a list of talks with titles like “Mobile Device Applications” and “The Fundable Entrepreneur.”

Will business folks and startup wannabes really be interested in MIT standards like calculus or electrical engineering, or oddballs like “Street-Fighting Mathematics”? Maybe not, although Economics 101 and other staples of the Sloan School of Management could fit the bill.

On the other hand, who knows?

OCW users include MIT students: Traffic surges at exam time, when it’s time to review, and at the end of the year, when students have to choose classes for the following term, Carchidi said. But it also includes other university and high school students, and people at schools in Third World countries looking to supplement courses, and a bunch of riff-raff like me, wandering through because we’ve tired of sudoku.

“When we first launched it, we thought primarily this would be an audience of educators,” Carchidi said. “In fact, about 43 percent of people who visit the site are self-learners . . . usually people with a bachelor’s or master’s degree who come for personal reasons. That was the big surprise for us.”

The idea for OpenCourseWare – OCW to acronym-happy geeks – first bubbled up in 1999, when MIT decided the Internet wasn’t just a fad, after all. By 2002, the first courses had been put online, and by 2007, MIT had placed virtually its entire courseload there, free for the taking.

OCW has continued to expand. The project now has a $3.7 million annual budget, half paid by MIT and half by donors, said Carchidi.

It is also part of the OCW Consortium, a nonprofit that includes similar courses from many scores of universities, including about two dozen in the U.S., which among them have several thousand courses online. It’s really a staggering amount of free knowledge, like Wikipedia but with standards.

It has even affected some MIT professors, which tweak their course presentation so it works better in OCW. Professor Walter Lewis has become an Internet star because of the popularity of his intro to physics classes. Carchidi said Lewis works very hard to craft lectures and demonstrations that are effective online.

However, we don’t want to go overboard. There are serious limits to this virtual “sage on a stage,” as the lecture format is sometimes called.

For one thing, you can’t get college credit and you don’t get tests graded to confirm that you understand what’s going on. There’s also no way for others to know that you’ve taken these classes.

Worse, you can’t get real-world help from professors or grad students, or access to lab facilities. You’re on your own, which in my case means I usually bog down after a couple of lectures.

OCW shows that watching videos and filling in online forms really isn’t the same as being in class.

But it’s a lot better than trying to teach yourself with books from the library and some of those “Great Lectures” CDs.

OpenCourseWare also has more than a whiff of being a “disruptive technology,” the buzzword for developments that upend existing industries, as has happened to travel agencies, real-estate firms and (sob!) newspapers.

After all, if we can obtain some of the intellectual value of a $40,000 college year for free, why take on all that debt?

Carchidi doesn’t think this is a problem; if anything, the existence of programs like OCW will make more people realize the value of being in college.

“Although this started with the institutional philanthropy idea, that this is what an institution of higher education ought to be doing, there have been a lot of benefits back to the institution. It highlights the value of what goes on here, at MIT, in the classrooms,” he said.

OCW’s latest project, he adds, is to increase interactive elements, to help us self-learners keep at it – even if we’re graybeards.

Granite Geek appears Mondays in the Telegraph and online at www.granite David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or