I was not screwing around. When I took the first physics class of my life, at age 35, it was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and my professor was Walter Lewin, one of that institution's most respected instructors. Lewin is a man so comfortable with his vectors that he diagrams them in front of a classroom audience while wearing Teva sandals.
OK, I wasn't really "at" MIT. And "took" the class may be a stretch. I was watching the video of one of Lewin's lectures from the comfort of my backyard in Brooklyn, and I too was wearing sandals (but not Tevas; I have standards).
Lewin is the breakout star of MIT's OpenCourseWare (OCW) program, what the school calls a "Web publication" of virtually every class taught in its hallowed halls. For his dynamic teaching and frequent stunts (building a human pendulum, firing golf balls at glass panels), he's been downloaded by physics enthusiasts around the globe and profiled on the front page of the New York Times as the first luminary of online open learning. The professor's fans are examples of a new type of student participating in a new kind of education, one built around the vast library of free online courseware offered by many of the world's temples of higher learning, as well as museums, nonprofit organizations and other knowledgeable benevolents.
Why would someone who's not paying $38,000 or getting a single credit subject themselves to the rigors of an MIT course? For one thing, OCW offers elite teaching on demand. College students at lesser schools can use a teacher like Lewin to stretch themselves (32 percent of MIT's OCW users are enrolled at another college). A high-school physics teacher might tune in to brush up on the laws of thermodynamics -- or become a better teacher by studying different methods of instruction. An engineer can beef up by taking tests from the advanced-level classes to identify stuff he ought to know but doesn't and then dive into course notes to learn them.
And then there's the just plain curious, a category that would include me. I wondered: What's an MIT course like, anyway? Could I, more than a decade out of school, hang with those young brainiacs? To find out, I dusted off my three-ring binder and re-enrolled in school part-time from the comfort of my couch, drawing not just from MIT but from the many free sources online. Mimicking a typical course load, I would take a science course and a language course, attempt to cram in a computer-programming course, and watch as many miscellaneous lectures as I could stand. I wanted to see if I, in a month, operating as an adult balancing a semi-regular schedule and lots of other obligations, could actually learn something.
The idea behind MIT's OpenCourseWare program was born in 2000 on the recommendation of a faculty committee convened to answer two questions: How is the Internet going to change education? And what is MIT going to do about it?
Steve Carson, a spokesman for OCW, which is now a full entity within MIT with a $3.6-million budget, told me that the group was expected to recommend a for-profit distance-learning program. Once they started thinking hard about such a model, however, it didn't make sense.
The problem is that MIT is, by its very nature, an exclusive institution, which accepts a mere 12 percent of its applicants and charges a small fortune for the privilege of attending. To put a scaled-back version of that online, available to a much larger audience, and still award credit would potentially devalue the existing university. Instead, they decided to do the opposite: put everything out there for free, but with no offer of credit or a degree. It would cost a lot of money, sure, but it would be great for the school's image, and it would be a tremendous resource for actual MIT students -- as Carson puts it, a "souped-up Wikipedia" for the MIT community to use. In the meantime, it would give the whole world the opportunity to sample an MIT education. Shigeru Miyagawa, a professor of Japanese and linguistics at MIT, was one of the key members of that committee. He speaks of the program with uncut idealism. "Why are we doing this?" he says. "We're doing this because of the belief that knowledge, when you share it, expands."single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.