OpenCourseWare and the Future of Education

As we are all aware, MIT has and will continue to make relatively large cuts to its budget in light of the recent financial meltdown. The administration established the Institute-Wide Planning Task Force to evaluate ways to make these cuts with minimal impact to the MIT community. One proposal is to cut funding to OpenCourseWare (OCW) or continue funding only until the grant funding that has paid for 72 percent of OCW since its creation runs out. For those not familiar with OCW, it is a brilliant piece of intellectual philanthropy that MIT opened to the public in September of 2002. Essentially, anyone in the world can access the same knowledge and information that MIT students are inundated with by classes. Not just a few classes here and there in the most common disciplines ­— as of May 2006 there were 1400 courses online. This is an unbelievable resource that has been utilized by about 60 million people, both on and off the campus. Twenty years ago, the thought that one could log onto a computer and access nearly the entire curriculum at MIT would be unthinkable. But now it can be done.

Yet what of the costs? OCW is more than simply recording lectures and posting problem sets and exams. A dedicated staff is necessary to deal with publishing the various formats of media and keeping OCW updated and relevant. This sums to $4.1 million per year, although OCW has managed to cut about $500,000 from its budget in FY 2009. Since its creation, 22 percent of OCW’s expenditures have been covered by the Institute, 72 percent has been paid for through grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Andrew Mellon Foundation, and 6 percent has been covered by donations, revenue, and other sources. Unfortunately, grant funding runs out in two years. With that in mind, while many are asking how OCW can be sustained, others are wondering if it should be at all.

Answering this question necessitates a broader view on education. In the United States, the federal government provides free public education, grades K-12, to every citizen of the country. We take this for granted, but I cannot stress enough how utterly remarkable this actually is. Eighteen-year-olds leave high school with more knowledge than a citizen of the 18th century could even dream of. Knowledge of math that took the Greeks generations to uncover are imparted in a few weeks in a free high school math course to every American student. This model of education is absolutely revolutionary, and most take it for granted.

The model clearly is not perfect, but it is certainly an excellent foundation upon which we can build. However, once a student graduates from high school, a guaranteed free public education ends. From that point on, families must find a way to pay for a college education should a student decide to continue their studies. And, quite frankly, without a college degree, their horizons are extremely limited.

Is this the right model? Sure, families can get loans, students can earn scholarships through hard work and dedication, and state colleges can attempt to increase accessibility by keeping costs low. Yet some students spend the rest of their lives paying off debt from college loans and others cannot even hope to afford it in the first place.

OCW is a way to remedy this inequity. With its immense power anyone, from the student who could not get accepted to any colleges to the senior citizen who is curious about quantum mechanics, can access information that historically has been restricted to those within the walls of a university. Thus, completely free, public education can continue beyond high school. Of course, no degree can be earned through the completion of an online OCW course, but the very fact that the dissemination of knowledge is no longer restricted to those who can afford it is valuable. We have unlocked the secrets of the human genome; we understand the motion of both the planets and subatomic particles; we comprehend things that people long ago could not even imagine. Why should that information be restricted to a select number of people?

Some argue against making this information accessible to everyone. Suppose MIT continues to make OCW accessible, even continuing to expand it. The average student at MIT can then simply go online to OCW and watch the lectures, do the problem sets, show up for the final, pass, and they’ve got their degree. This leads to empty lecture halls and vacant recitations. There is no longer a need for professors or TAs. But, detractors of universal knowledge claim, if all of the professors and TAs are let go, how can OCW continue to be updated?

A related argument states that if anyone can simply go online and access an MIT education, then what’s the point of paying to attend the school? There goes MIT’s source of income.

Finally, some claim that the program is far too socialistic. These people feel that education must be earned. If you work hard through high school, get good grades, develop a good character, and manage to stand out, they claim that you will get into a school, earning the opportunities that will follow.

While respectable, none of these arguments hold enough sway to cut funding to OCW. The first argument will never actually come to fruition; videos for many classes lectures, including 3.091 and 7.012 (Introduction to Solid-State Chemistry and Introductory Biology, respectively), are already posted online following the lecture. While some students take advantage of this, the lecture halls have yet to become empty. And if, hypothetically, such a thing did happen as a result of an OCW-like program, all MIT would have to do is institute a mandatory attendance policy.

The answer to the second argument is quite simple: yes, anyone can essentially get an MIT education online, but you don’t get the degree unless you attend the school. Without a degree in a certain course from an accredited institution, employers will not take you seriously. Claiming that you’re qualified to operate a nuclear reactor because you “watched MIT lectures on it online” is not likely to convince an employer to hire you.

The final argument is more ideological. Once again, the age-old capitalism-versus-socialism debate. Opponents to OCW programs argue that not everyone has “a right” to this knowledge. People have spent lots of money, lots of time, and lots of ingenuity to develop the knowledge that we have today, and this should not simply be given away. Unless you’re willing to earn it, it should not be made available to you.

Such a philosophy would also mean that opponents of OCW would also oppose the current public education system. In the end, what it comes down to is that the rich can get this knowledge while the poor are left out. Yes, a poor student who excels will get scholarships and admittance to universities and rich students who fail will not. However, an average poor student may get accepted but earn no scholarships. An average rich student may also get accepted and likewise earn no scholarships. But the only thing that differentiates these students is the wealth of their parents, the rich student will be able to afford a college education while the poor student will not. Any system that favors wealth over ability, character, and dedication is wrong.

MIT should continue to support OCW because it is the first step to promoting free public education at a higher level than grade 12. The academic climate in the United States is changing. Due to the tough economy, state colleges, which are the government’s attempt to provide an affordable higher education, are becoming more competitive than ever before. The country is also undergoing an “inflation” of college degrees. While a bachelor’s degree would get you nearly any job in the past, a bachelor’s is now expected and it is a master’s that provides better chances of getting a job today. Therefore, people who get rejected from college or are unable to afford a higher education have far fewer opportunities than those who attain a bachelor’s and master’s degree.

Some might argue that if just anyone is let into college, then the country will be flooded with unqualified individuals. This is not true — as long as standards are kept high, individuals who are unqualified will flunk out and be unable to earn their degree. It is wrong to deny an individual the right to an education and, as a result, a good job with a livable wage, on the basis that their parents cannot afford it. For logical and moral reasons, free higher level education is a necessity. OpenCourseWare is a harbinger of the future of education, and MIT would do well to continue to ensure its continued availability.