Thursday, June 11, 2009

Open Courseware Revolution

I’d like to give you a valuable tip about a revolution going on in higher education. It’s called Open Courseware and it is spreading fast among the nation’s top schools, such as MIT, UC Berkeley, Notre Dame and others. Soon most universities will participate in this trend to make their course offerings available online for free. So what exactly do you get for free? Actually quite a bit, you get a syllabus, handouts, homework assignments and solutions, as well as mid-term and final exams and solutions. But the best thing you get is a full series of video lectures recorded during actual class sessions. With all this at your disposal, it is very close to being enrolled in the actual course. So what don’t you get with open courseware? Well, you don’t get university credit for your effort. Pay nothing for the course and you don’t get a degree, but you do get the knowledge and this knowledge has never been so widely available to every person on the planet.

You can finally quench your thirst for knowledge. There is the heartwarming story of a long distance trucker taking an open courseware philosophy class on Nietzsche. Consider the impact of this movement. The trucker would never likely be able to avail herself of college courses in any other way, and instead of wasting hours upon hours on the road listening to Top-20 tunes, she improves herself by taking university level courses.

I’ve utilized open courseware myself to gain the requisite knowledge for my chosen field of gravitational wave research. I found that I needed a refresher in basic physics so I turned to MIT Open Courseware. The university was one of the first to embrace the concept and open up its course catalog to the public. I encourage you to go check out this site and browse through the course listings and examine the individual course web pages where you can find all the materials.

Here is how I approached taking one of my favorite courses. I perused the physics department course catalog and selected course 8.02, a renowned course on Electricity and Magnetism (E&M) for freshman and sophmores and a real deal breaker given how tough it is. The class gives you a good idea what it would be like taking this course in real life during a fast-paced semester of 36 meetings. You get a distinct impression how brilliant MIT students need to be, because you must remember they’re taking a full course load at the same time. I then went to the course website and downloaded all the materials. I found out from the syllabus the textbooks needed for the class and I ordered them on Then I tried my best to keep pace with the schedule of lectures, readings, and homework assignments. I took all the exams. To get the video lectures, I visited the Apple iTunes website and downloaded about 10 lectures at a time onto my iPod Nano which has video display capabilities. This way I could be totally portable with my studies and take the physics lectures along with me anywhere at all, even while sipping an espresso at Starbucks.

The quality of the lectures is superb, often masterful. The professor for the 8.02 class I took was Professor Walter Lewin. I can see why he is so highly revered at MIT. You can witness his teaching style for yourself by playing the Youtube clip attached to this post that showcases one of his lectures on classical mechanics. He is simply excellent and I speak from a professional perspective as I taught at UCLA for 15 years. I enjoyed each and every one of his lectures, complete with very amusing and animated in-class demonstrations of E&M principles. I particularly enjoyed the Van de Graaff generator demonstrations which illustrated concepts of electric charge. The image of Professor Lewin’s hair standing on end still makes me chuckle. The video production for the lectures is expertly done to give the viewer a feel of actually being in class as the camera frequently pans the room and catches student’s facial expressions.

For any science enthusiast reading this blog, think about getting a solid foundation in the field(s) of your choice and take advantage of the open courseware revolution. As I was taking the MIT physics courses, I felt fortunate to have this technology available to me which allows me to take high quality courses from such a respected math and science school as MIT.


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  2. OCW Update!

    It my original SLB post, I heralded the merits of MIT’s Open Course Ware offering that since May 2006 has made 1,400 courses online that has been utilized by about 60 million people worldwide.

    In the Dec. 8, 2009 issue of MIT’s newspaper The Tech, an in depth expose appeared about the future of OCW. The cost of the project amounts to $4.1 million per year. Two generous foundations support most of the program, but the funding runs out in two years. Many are asking how OCW can be sustained, while others are wondering if it should be continued at all.

    As much as I believe in the value of OCW for people who can’t afford a college education, or simply want to learn for the sake of leaning, there are those hardcore conservatives who’d like to see OCW disappear altogether. The argument is ideological, the age-old capitalism versus socialism debate. Opponents of the OCW program argue that not everyone has “a right” to this knowledge. Their theory is that 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. Such a philosophy would also mean that opponents of OCW would also oppose the current public education system – if you can’t afford an education then you shouldn’t have one.

    This all touches on very sensitive areas in the political climate of this country, especially with the historic health care reform bill that seems likely to become law very soon. All I know is that I have directly benefited from OCW by taking many MIT physics and mathematics courses using OCW. I’d hate to see this knowledge retreat behind closed doors.

  3. UPDATE: in an interview with the MIT Tech newspaper Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates said "I'm a super happy user" of MIT OCW. "I re-took physics with Walter Lewin." Of the 33 courses that have video, Gates said he's taken 11. I chuckled when I read this because I took three courses from Course 8 myself, excellent!


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