Education Wants to Be Free


In 2001, MIT announced that it was going to put its course materials online. Class notes, videotapes of lectures, selected readings—they'd all be free to anyone able to access them. Two years later, Wired is checking in to see how the program's been working out.

Here's the lede:

Lam Vi Quoc negotiates his scooter through Ho Chi Minh City's relentless stream of pedal traffic and hangs a right down a crowded alley. He climbs the steep wooden stairs of the tiny house he shares with nine family members, passing by his mother, who is stooped on the floor of the second level preparing lunch. He ascends another set of even steeper steps to the third level and settles on a stool at a small desk, pushing aside the rolled-up mat he sleeps on with one of his brothers. To the smell of a chicken roasting on a grill in the alley and the clang of the next-door neighbor's metalworking operation, Lam turns on his Pentium 4 PC, and soon the screen displays Lecture 2 of Laboratory in Software Engineering, a course taught each semester on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Here," he says, pointing at the screen. "This is where I got the idea to use decoupling as a way of integrating two programs."

Last year 50 classes were online. This year there will be 500. By 2006, the university plans to post about 2,000.

NEXT: Whole Latte Trouble

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  1. Maybe MIT’s move will change that. Also, there’s the self-employment route, which worked out OK for that MSFT guy.

  2. Must be Commies running the place. Surely there’s a way to grub some money out of this.

  3. Amazing! This should be the wave of the future, considering how much cheaper it is to move information than to move people.

    Yet as I write this, the educracy is promoting school consolidation (based on a factory model of organizing “learning” assembly line-style at a central location) on the grounds of “efficiency.” The government skools certainly ARE more efficient at the indoctrination a good servant of the corporate state needs; if they didn’t kill off the kids’ natural curiosity and occupy eight hours of their time every day, they might learn something that caused them to question authority!

    It’s too bad “Deschooling Society” was written thirty years too early to take account of this potential.

  4. Man, now I feel like the money spent getting that degree was wasted. I bought the cow and, had I waited, I could’ve gotten the milk for free.

  5. Easy way to make money from this… offer people a way to take exams and earn credits toward graduation. A computer based exam (like the GMAT) costs a couple of hundred bucks and can be written anywhere in the world. Multiply that by the number of exams that are written en route to a degree, and it amounts to a lucrative revenue source for schools.

  6. I’m taking one college class this term, and good god I somehow managed to forget just the exact reasons why I’m only going part time and only taking one class:


    1) Comprehensive exams got “too many complaints”, so we’ve apparently done away with them in this class. It’s like they actually know that remembering this shit past the end of the test is meaningless, so they are just giving up little by little each year.

    2) 25% of the grade will be on attendance, and you’ll be considered tardy if you leave the class for more than 10 minutes, and absent if you leave the class more than 10 minutes before class is over. Maybe it’s just me, but that seems to say just volumes about the brilliant sort of systems they have going.

    3) I’m begining to think that if I wasn’t surrounded by people who are almost completely uninterested in being there that I’d be diagnosed with ADD – I’ve spent 12 hours straight reading Shakespeare and countless hours just sitting in a car reading about the history of mathematics, and yet no matter how much energy I go into class with (had a coke before class, breakfast, a full night’s sleep, and THREE energy pills which contain some small amount of caffeine) I’m having to struggle to pay attention and stay awake 1 hour into the thing. Jesus Christ.

    Which leads me to a ponderance: maybe it’s not that children have problems with paying attention – maybe the people they are around are just really, really fucking boring compared to what else they know they COULD be doing.

    4) If I wasn’t sure before, I’m almost sure now – I have no real, desirable choice but to pick a career which doesn’t require much in the way of college degrees, because I have just entirely too little tolerance for such shoddy, sickening butcherings of genuine learning and knowledge. It’d litterally be like a Buddhist earning a living by working on a slave plantation – it’s just too much to bear.

    5) They are still teaching cost accounting, for Christ sakes. Not so much as a single mention of The Theory of Constraints, Goldratt, or Deming that I could find, and only passing mentions of some newer approaches which deal with modern realities of business, such as JIT and so forth. Knowing about those already it’ll just be like a history class.

    6) College does serve a productive purpose for me, however: it gives me the sufficient environmental pressure to get all gussied up (clean face, good clothes, hygiene, positive social attitude and appearance, etc) and out in society that’s required to engage in the sort of things I’ll need to engage in to go about my chosen profession.

    That, and maybe it’ll be a good lesson in how to deal with boring, bland material effectively, which I suppose could be a valuable skill.

  7. Easy way to make money from this… offer people a way to take exams and earn credits toward graduation. A computer based exam (like the GMAT) costs a couple of hundred bucks and can be written anywhere in the world. Multiply that by the number of exams that are written en route to a degree, and it amounts to a lucrative revenue source for schools.

    Done deal. There are many tests to be taken for undergraduate credit.

  8. It is possible to earn money by creating and selling intelectual property. MIT is giving away knowledge, the captital that people need to create intelectual property. This means everyone with internet access and a willingness to work can earn his prosperity. Between starbucks giving away wireless access and non-profits bringing computers poorer communities, we could see peaceful revolution that puts everyone on a fair economic footing.

  9. That’s great that Lam in Vietnam is learning software engineering from MIT, but I do worry somewhat that Ahmed in Riyadh is learning nuclear engineering from MIT, or Kim in Pyongyang (in between mouthfuls of grass) is learning advanced genetic engineering from MIT.

    America’s knowledge capital (especially in science & engineering) is a source of national strength and an important component of national defense. I’d feel more comfortable if we thought through a bit more carefully the notion of simply handing it away to anyone (at least in certain sensitive disciplines).

  10. Great to see that it’s working.

    Too bad it’s the degree that makes the difference most of the time when looking for a job.

  11. Gomtu,

    Relax, it’s only a matter of time til Loompanics has “Uncle Fester’s Guide to Radiological Weapons and Dirty Bombs” for $19.95, anyway.

  12. *gulp*

    [heads for New Zealand]

  13. Anghelone, could you supply a possible link to the “many tests that can be taken for undergraduate credit.”?


  14. What MIT students are learning for free sounds a lot like the TANSTAAFL theory. (You get what you pay for)

    Did you look at that site!?

    – Under History: John Kenneth Galbraith
    – Under Gov’t: What causes Poverty? (Guess)
    – Under Econ: John Maynard keynes


  15. Junior,

    Too many links but you can look up CLEP, DANTES, Excelsior College, Thomas Edison State College, Charter Oaks State College, Ohio University credit by examination…

    An off-putting title but good site is BA in 4 Weeks. DegreeInfo is a good site for distance learning in general and has a good forum.

  16. Somehow I think that if it’s taught in a regular college class (even at MIT) it’s not exactly a state secret…

  17. While the idea of being able to learn for free what MIT students are learning for a fee sounds like a good idea in theory, in practice it probably depends upon how good the notes are that the instructor posts on the website.

    For example, I just took a look at the Fall 2002 courseware for “Introduction to Macroenomics”. The instructors recitation notes were difficult to follow on their own without some context being presented. Perhaps they would have made more sense if I were reading the course textbook.

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