United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

Paris - Professors and lecturers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have agreed to post on the Internet, free of charge for all the world’s higher education institutions and students, the contents of the courses given at this prestigious US university - lectures, tests, assignments, textbooks, reading materials, bibliographies, simulations, experiments, demonstrations and study programmes.

In a few years, 2,000 MIT courses will be available free (for non-commercial use), starting with about 50 to be put online in the next few months. The project, mostly funded by the William and Flora Hewlett and Mellon foundations and by MIT, will cost about US$100 million over the coming decade.

However, for this valuable educational material to be truly useful to students and teachers in developing countries, Anne Margulies, Executive Director of MIT’s Open CourseWare project, says, “We need to understand better the needs of universities in other countries and in particular in developing countries, and we want to make sure we get their input and eventually their feedback in what we publish so that our efforts go into something that is truly useful.”

This concern was the centre of discussions by about twenty world experts attending the “Forum on the Impact of Open Courseware for Higher Education in Developing Countries” at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris from 1 to 3 July.

“We must consider the material MIT is offering together with the conditions in which it is received,” cautions Abdulaye Diakité, who teaches at Guinea’s Conakry University. “Some laboratory experiments done at MIT won’t be possible in universities in developing countries. So we need careful monitoring, with information not only on the usefulness of the courses but also on how to adapt them.”

MIT is willing to do this because it wants to help students and teachers in the South, by enabling an engineering student in Morocco, for example, to have access to courses at the same level and in the same subject at MIT. Or by allowing a teacher in Guinea to follow a chemistry course step by step to understand how colleagues at MIT build up the students’ knowledge.

“One of the main goals of the project is to raise the quality of university teaching, both at MIT as well as at other universities, because when a teacher puts his courses online a colleague can see it and judge it. If a student in an average North American University, or anywhere else for that matter can go to his room, log on to the Internet and compare the information he gets in his class with what is taught at the MIT. He can go and ask his professor why he is not given the same kind of information, as updated and as complete. In the research we have done, this seems to be the most effective tool for encouraging the quality of teaching”, says Sally M. Johnstone, Director of the US-based Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET).

This is not distance learning. Consulting these courses will not give students MIT degrees. Nor will they have direct contact with the MIT professors whose work they see on the Internet. “Reading the content of a course on the Internet isn’t the same as participating in it, because a course is a live event, with teacher-student interaction,” says Mohammed Dhabi, who teaches literature at the Mohammed V University in Rabat. “What MIT offers is open access to a description of its course contents and structures. It’ll just be one more point of reference.”

What is open courseware? One of the tasks of the experts brought together by UNESCO was to define it. They came up with: “Information and communication technology enabled, open provision of educational resources for consultation, use and adaptation by a community of users for non-commercial purposes.” They went further and suggested renaming it “open education resources”, saying that “open courseware” could be confused with “free software”.

The experts emphasized that the courses would have to be “sustainable”, meaning that people could freely edit, change or make use of all or part of a course - but also that investments made in infrastructure by universities in developing countries, especially in computer hardware and software, would not become obsolete after a couple of years. The technology used by the MIT should be designed so as to allow the use of a variety of appropriate tools, with a minimum of integration problems, they said.

Cultural obstacles were also raised during the discussions such as the need to realize the fact that the same subject - for example, basic mathematics to support telecommunications development - is taught in different ways in different countries. The principle of adaptability is crucial, entailing not just translating material from English into the local language but also adapting it from one country, one culture, one situation to another. Without this, some of the experts said, the impact of the MIT courses would be limited.

Others, however, were more optimistic and said that adaptability was routine for teachers, who must adjust courses to the kind of students they have, just as students have to adapt to the job market after finishing their studies. “I give the same mathematics course in France and Egypt, but I don’t teach it the same way,” says Mohamed-Nabil Sabry, a lecturer at Cairo’s Mansura University. “French students like to learn concepts first and then the examples, while Egyptian students learn better when it’s the other way round.”

So international co-operation is vital if the project is to succeed, the experts stress. A university can download a course from the Internet, translate it, adapt it and then put it back online so others can make use of the new material. To facilitate such cooperation, the experts suggested creating an organization - perhaps with a website www.openeducationresources.org <http://www.openeducationresources.org> - that would coordinate the work of various groups around the world.

UNESCO is planning, with MIT and others partners, an international evaluation and usability improvement project on open educational resources. There are plans to contact more than a dozen higher education institutions that will test, apply and assess a complete series of open educational resources in science and technology over a period of a year. The feedback from these institutions will be crucial for the future development of the project, based on the reactions of teachers and students, identifying the kind of support needed from institutions and collecting statistical data about access and use of material. The meeting also recommended the establishment of a Global Index System to help potential users find open educational resources and make them easily accessible, and a forum for international accreditation and validation of open educational resources, in which users will be able to discuss, for example, the relevance of material made available online for countries in the South and the quality of translations. UNESCO is considering both options.

MIT’s long-term goal is to get other institutions to follow its example, without necessarily copying its model. “The programme’s success will be judged by how many universities can persuade their teachers to put their own courses online too,” says Vijay Kumar, MIT’s Director of Academic Computing. “What MIT will do is offer its experience in the field, which is the best way we’ve found to do things.”

If MIT’s example is taken up by other universities around the world, professors and students will get to know more about the learning process and building of knowledge in other cultures - valuable information that people will be able to share thanks to new information technology.

Asbel López
Bureau of Public Information - Editorial Section
tel: (+33) (0)1 4568-1707

Participants’ papers: www.wcet.info/unesco

Source Feature No.2002-16
Website 1 (URL) MIT OpenCourseWare
Website 2 (URL) The Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET)
Website 3 (URL) The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
Website 4 (URL) The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
Publication Date 17 Jul 2002
© UNESCO 1995-2007 - ID: 4316