Open Courseware: How You Can Take Classes at MIT, Stanford, or Harvard for Free
The year was 1999. The online education industry was still in its infancy, but MIT was ahead of the times. The school’s provost, Robert Brown, had just given the school an assignment: figure out how to position itself for the coming trend in online learning.
Many colleges at the time wanted to figure out how to make money with online education—and MIT was no different. But then a group of professors suggested a revolutionary idea: why not just post all class materials online, available to everyone? And why not make it free?
MIT attracted funding and publicity, and the rest was history. Their success sparked an OpenCourseWare movement among top universities all over the world. Today, you can pull up a virtual chair and sit in on classes at Carnegie Mellon, Tufts, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Utah State, the University of Notre Dame, and other top-tier universities—all without paying a dime.
The Limits of OpenCourseWare: What You Can’t Get From It
OpenCourseWare is a phenomenal information-sharing trend, but it’s not a magic bullet. There are a few things it can’t give you, and these include:
A degree. You can download the OpenCourseWare materials for all the required classes for a four-year degree at Harvard Medical School. You can read the books and articles, watch all the lectures, and take all the quizzes and tests. You can even grade yourself. But you can’t get a degree from Harvard—not unless you’re paying tuition.
Money. One of the problems with OpenCourseWare that schools are trying to address is the possibility of exploitation. Some entrepreneurs have seen an opportunity to offer “MIT degrees” and other fraudulent college degrees based on free OpenCourseWare materials, for a fee. But OpenCourseWare wasn’t created with individual profit in mind, and anyone who does this is likely to face legal challenges.
Attention from professors. You can download lectures, read lecture notes, and do all the assignments with OpenCourseWare that paying students do. But the professor won’t grade your test, answer your questions, or give you feedback. It’s a major reason universities justify the fact that OpenCourseWare won’t give you a degree. Teacher attention does make a difference.
The Benefits of Open Courseware: What’s In It For You
However, OpenCourseWare does bring you valuable knowledge. If you’re not looking for a degree and have strong independent learning skills, you can get a great deal out of a good OpenCourseWare program.
A supplement to your other classes. OpenCourseWare comes into its own when you want to go more in-depth in a subject than your current classes allow. You can browse OpenCourseWare offerings to get a different perspective on the same topic, peek in at more advanced classes, and increase the depth of your learning.
Practical knowledge. You may not get a degree studying engineering at MIT through OpenCourseWare. But you’ll learn a lot more about it—probably enough to apply it to your own projects. If you’re in it more for the knowledge than the credential, OpenCourseWare is an excellent way to get the know-how you need. You get access to the knowledge base of an expensive college, all for free.
More than reading lists. It’s a common misconception that OpenCourseWare simply provides a list of reading materials, and leaves it at that. But it’s much more in-depth. Many programs provide video lectures, tests and quizzes, multimedia presentations, audio recordings, and more—in addition to reading lists and lecture notes. With OpenCourseWare, you get everything but the student-teacher interaction.
OpenCourseWare is becoming more and more common at the nation’s top schools: even Stanford and Yale are planning to make their course materials available online in the near future.
OpenCourseWare can bring you much of the knowledge enrolled students pay thousands of dollars for. True, it’s no replacement for an actual degree; but it’s a valuable free resource every online student should know about.
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