Fri, Apr 06, 2007 - Page 9 News List

MIT education in Taiwan, minus the degree

MIT's radical move to make almost all of the institute's course materials available free online has benefited many and further fueled interest in paid enrollment

By Noam Cohen  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Lucifer Chu (朱學恆), a 31-year-old from Taipei, is as good an example as any of the shrinking distances between East and West.

Chu has become a millionaire by producing Chinese translations of fantasy novels. Using much of the US$1 million in royalties from his versions of The Lord of the Rings, Chu says he devotes himself to distributing free translations of material from a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Web site.

When MIT introduced its OpenCourseWare project six years ago, it was a radical departure. The project was intended to make virtually all of the institute's course materials available online -- free -- over a 10-year period at the cost of US$100 million. (The material is provided under a creative common license, which, among other things, forbids its being used for commercial purposes, but allows it to be copied and used for other purposes.)

The university's good intentions came with some concerns: It's not easy to share the lecture notes, slide presentations, sample tests, syllabuses and reading lists that go into an MIT course. First, faculty members have to agree to go along. Also, the 25 people who work on OpenCourseWare have had to obtain permission to use other people's creative work that crops up in the slides and lectures. Finally, there was the concern that if MIT gives away this material, would students still pay the US$33,600 tuition to attend? It should go without saying that MIT has continued to fill its classes, and that the piece of parchment with a graduate's name on it, or even a realistic copy, still cannot be found online.

If anything, university officials say, the material has served to stoke the interest of potential applicants.

"A student was going to be coming to MIT as an undergrad, and he sent me an e-mail that said he had already attended my lectures," said Anant Agarwal, whose lectures for the introductory electrical engineering course are available as streaming video at the OpenCourseWare site, ocw.mit.edu. "And he was from Malaysia."

In fact, things have been moving swimmingly, administrators say. By the end of the year, the first phase should be over, said Steve Carson, the project's director of external relations, with nearly all 1,800 courses having some sort of representation online; the cost has been US$30 million. Currently, there are more than 1,600 courses published, and 2 million visits a month.

"It is so much bigger than we could have ever imagined," said Shigeru Miyagawa, a professor of linguistics and Japanese, who was on the committee that originally proposed the plan. "The number of visits that we get is beyond belief. We really didn't know who would be using it when we went into this at the very beginning."

The president of MIT at the time, Charles Vest, anticipated as much, saying that "there will probably be a lot of uses that will really surprise us and that we can't really predict."

Chu's efforts qualify as a pleasant surprise. His team, which includes four full-time editors and scores of volunteers, has completed translations of 178 courses, and more than 600 partial ones. Thirty-five are good enough that MIT links to them directly.

Chu personally worked on the introduction to electromagnetism, a subject that had bedeviled him at National Central University in Taiwan. He flunked it two times, he said.

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