Cybernaut 

Taking back the Web

Outside of the American military, the first Internet networks were built and maintained by a group university professors to allow the great minds of the time to exchange ideas and co-operate on projects.

It wasn’t until the mid-1980s, almost 15 years after the first closed Internet platforms came into being, that the scientists saw its potential as an education tool. By allowing free access to information and a free exchange of ideas, the creators of the U.S. version of this tool believed they could transcend the rivalry that exists between universities and advance studies in virtually every academic and scientific field.

Furthermore, the National Science Foundation believed that this education Internet "must be made available to all qualified users on campus."

By the time the Internet was introduced to the public in the late 1980s and popularized in the early 1990s, the idea of free education was dying out. It cost literally hundreds of millions of dollars to build the Internet infrastructure, and companies were starting to look at the technology as a sales and marketing bonanza with the potential to generate huge revenues.

For the next half decade, until the bottom dropped out of the tech market, the Internet became another channel for companies to sell things, and a good-sized industry of its own as people bought computers and rented Internet services.

Education was still a key feature driving this growth, and no doubt millions of computers were sold with the promise that it would help sixth graders with their dinosaur projects and turn high school slackers into learning machines. Still, it was only a means to an end for companies – about 36 million Americans have participated in online auctions while less than five million are actually taking accredited educational programs through the Internet.

Still, one study by Pew Internet and American Life found that 86 per cent of college students regularly use the Internet to help with their studies, and 80 per cent have said it has had a positive impact on their academic experience.

Now the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – one of the birthplaces of Internet technology in the ’60s and one of the most highly regarded technical schools in the world – wants to pump up the educational value of the Net even higher while returning to its roots by offering free studies online.

"Our hope and aspiration is that by setting an example, other universities will also put their valued materials on the Internet and thereby make a truly profound and fundamental impact on learning and education worldwide," MIT professor Dick Yue told BBC News.

The project is called OpenCourseWare, and MIT hopes that it will put an end to the practice of selling education online for good. It won’t offer degrees, but it will make thousands of pages of information, and hours of lectures, seminars and experiments available to anyone in the world.

The first courses were published on the Internet on Sept. 30, including anthropology, biology, chemical engineering, civil and environmental engineering; earth and planetary sciences, economics, electrical engineering and computer science, history, linguistics and philosophy, management, mathematics, mechanical engineering, ocean engineering, political studies, and urban studies and planning. Other courses will follow as they become ready, and in 10 years MIT plans to have all of its coursework available online.

There is no catch, and there are no plans to include any. According to MIT, the goal is to buck the trend and get the Net back on track towards its original goal of sharing information and knowledge.

Free public education itself was based on the concept that education is a fundamental right, and that the more knowledge people have, the better off we all are as a society. Post-secondary institutions in Canada are heavily subsidized as a result of this proven theory, and colleges and universities give out hundreds of grants and scholarships to make education more widely accessible.

Still, tuition rates are climbing in Canada and the U.S., and even the most principled learning institutions have had to make bottom line decisions in recent years that have affected the accessibility, quality or quantity of education.

MIT’s OpenCourseWare project is definitely bucking that trend as well.

Go to http://web.mit.edu/ocw/ to learn more about the philosophy behind OpenCourseWare, and to access the available courses as they are put online.

There are no tests or assignments, and, as mentioned, users don’t get any credit for what they learn. You can use it to help with your own studies, to advance your own knowledge in certain areas, or simply to satisfy your own intellectual curiosity.

Before MIT, it was possible to find free courses online although they were typically languages and computer related courses designed around specific technologies, such as Sun Microsystems Java programming courses.

What makes the MIT offering so compelling is the fact that users get more than just a course or tutorial, they get the whole progression.

The fact that MIT is recognized as one of the top post-secondary institutions in the world is also pretty compelling.

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