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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

MIT comes into your home (for free)

You may not have the grades, the money or even the means to get to a physics class with one of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's best lecturers.

But if you have an Internet connection anywhere in the world, you can watch a video of the Dutch-born physics professor, Walter Lewin, swinging on a cable across the front of a lecture hall in his "Classical Mechanics" course to demonstrate that weight doesn't affect the time it takes a pendulum to complete a cycle of motion.

And you can do this for free.

Six years ago, MIT began breaking down the knowledge barrier by announcing it would make materials from its courses available free on the Internet.

Later this month, MIT will celebrate reaching its goal of having written portions, at least, of 1,800 courses -- virtually the entire course catalog, including materials from about 90 percent of its professors -- available free on its Web site.

"MIT used to be an ivory tower, like the Forbidden City in China," said Dr. Lewin. Now, he said, the public can see inside. "I think it's a wonderful thing. They get, by and large, very high quality stuff."

MIT's initiative has ignited a trend that has made course materials from universities around the world, including Carnegie Mellon, available for free on school Web sites or on consortium sites like YouTube and iTunes U, a service of Apple Computer.

The materials are known as "open courseware" or, more broadly, "open educational resources."

MIT's initial vision was that the courses would be viewed by other university instructors in hopes of improving teaching worldwide. But only 16 percent of users are educators. Nearly a third are students from other schools, and about half are self-learners.

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