Take the story of two Bostonians, Ann Nguyen and Alison Cole. Recent college grads (Nguyen from the University of Massachusetts -- Amherst, Cole from Scotland's Edinburgh Napier University), the two decamped this summer to India, where they plan to live cheaply for a few years while attempting a bold experiment. Nguyen and Cole saw in OCW's freely available teachings the material for an "alternative grad school" of their own design. Theirs is the ultimate study-abroad program -- self-imposed graduate-level distance learning conducted from a far-flung location that also happens to have plenty of opportunities for hands-on work related to the subject of study, environmental engineering. Cole told me that she's not sure how well it will work but that the two want to answer a number of questions, foremost among them: Can a person conduct work with high academic integrity outside the auspices of an institution?
"I'm an academic at heart," Cole says. "But the realization that continuing my education would only further my debt and reduce my ability to afford life and a family really bummed me out." She and Nguyen are using the syllabi from MIT OCW's courses in ground hydrology, soil behavior and aquatic chemistry to construct a program that will study arid-land restoration, a subject that has practical applications in India and will also be relevant out there in job-land when it comes time to move back. (How employers will feel about this self-governed education remains to be seen.)
Although Cole and Nguyen appear to be the first to attempt to use OCW as the basis for a full-blown graduate program, they're hardly the only hardcore autodidacts. Consider "Deevani," who e-mailed me one afternoon in response to a call for satisfied OCW students. Deevani turned out to be A. Ines Rooney, a 34-year-old music-industry executive who moonlights as a songwriter specializing in the Latin-inspired hip-hop known as reggaeton. Rooney is self-taught in 12 languages, including Urdu, Bengali and Mandarin, and spends whatever spare time she has after producing and recording records (and raising her children) to devour OCW language, culture, literature, economics and finance classes -- some 80 of them so far, she estimates. "I think I have a Ph.D. right now," she says, half-kidding. "I just don't have the credit."
Rooney is right. You'll never earn a degree from your self-imposed studies. As Carson points out, no amalgam of text and video, no matter who builds it, will ever be a substitute for an actual MIT education. (Or an education from Carnegie Mellon, or Notre Dame, or anywhere else.) You can't actually use the labs or interact with faculty, who are the real draw of a college.
Like any open-source program, however, free Internet education is evolving. "There are Yahoo groups that have formed around MIT content," Carson says. "If [independent learners] don't need certification but need content, they can go to OpenCourseWare and form a group."
I could have used a support group. The second week of my experiment, a little shell-shocked by my failure in physics, I listened to three MIT biology lectures. It didn't stick. Next I sought out something science-y that was both easier to handle and more practical. I opted for a seminar taught by the chemist Patricia Christie, a lecturer in MIT's Experiment Study Group. "Cooking," read the course description for Kitchen Chemistry, "may be the oldest and most widespread application of chemistry, and recipes may be the oldest practical result of chemical research." It sounded perfect until I hit a snag: There were no video or audio lectures.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.