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MIT’s OpenCourseWare, Viewed by Millions Worldwide, Wins Science SPORE Prize

When MIT made a formal decision in the year 2000 to publish their course materials on the Internet, MIT alumni could have been miffed. Here was the institution’s renowned curriculum—previously accessible to students who paid for it with their tuition and hard-won academic achievement—being offered to anyone with a computer.

The executive director of the MIT OpenCourseWare program that manages publication of the curriculum, who herself is an alumna of MIT and the daughter of two more MIT graduates, says she and her former classmates were thrilled.


Cecilia d’Oliveira, Executive Director, OpenCourseWare at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. | Image © & courtesy of MIT OpenCourseWare

“We were really, really proud of MIT for doing this,” Cecilia d’Oliveira says. “Basically, we were leveraging what MIT does and making it more available to more people.”


Today, the biggest donors to the OpenCourseWare Web site are MIT alumni, and the average number of visitors each month is more than 1.5 million.

Because of its enormous success as a science and engineering education tool, MIT OpenCourseWare has been selected to receive the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education, or SPORE. Science is published by AAAS, the nonprofit science society.

The prize was developed to identify and promote the best online materials available to science educators. The acronym SPORE refers to a reproductive element adapted to develop, often in adverse conditions, into something new—and to the idea that these winning projects may be the seed of significant progress in science education, despite considerable challenges to educational innovation. Science publishes an article by each recipient of the award, which explains the winning project. The article about MIT OpenCourseWare will be published in this week’s issue of Science.

“We want to recognize innovators in science education,” says Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science. “At the same time, this competition will promote those Web sites with the most potential to benefit science students and teachers. The publication of an article in Science on each winning site will help guide everyone to important online resources, thereby promoting science literacy.”

D’Oliveira, who was born and raised in Massachusetts, got involved with OpenCourseWare early in its development. After earning an undergraduate and a graduate degree at MIT, she worked there for a number of years and then went on to other projects. When she heard about OpenCourseWare (OCW) getting underway, she came back to MIT as OCW’s technical director.


Going global. Professor Walter Lewin’s video lectures in OpenCourseWare’s “Physics I: Classical Mechanics” have been widely lauded, and have been viewed by millions of people around the world. | Image © & courtesy of MIT OpenCourseWare

A background in computer science served her well in the job, and the mission of bringing worldwide access to the MIT curriculum was in keeping with what she thought of as the institution’s tradition of sharing knowledge. D’Oliveira points to instances where the school distributed curricula for teaching physics to other schools all over the country. Additionally, much of the technology that went into computer networking was shared with the world after being developed at MIT.


She says OpenCourseWare represented the first example of an institutional commitment to bring an entire curriculum, including syllabi, lecture notes, and exams, to the Internet. It was only after MIT settled on that approach that other institutions decided to openly share their educational resources, and by 2008, the OCW Consortium was formed. It currently has 250 university members from all over the world sharing their educational resources openly.

“People really understand the benefit of sharing educational materials,” d’Oliveira says.

“OCW contains the core academic content used in approximately 2000 classes, presenting nearly all the undergraduate and graduate curriculum from MIT’s 33 academic departments,” says Science editorial fellow Melissa McCartney. “But perhaps the most significant impact of the Web site is the global OCW movement MIT has initiated, creating a massive body of knowledge that spans both cultures and academic levels.”

Users of the site represent a broad range. Forty-five percent are not formally students, d’Oliveira says. Some are actually trying science for the first time. Some are coming back to science because they failed in a formal setting. Some are international users who have not been able to get into limited academic programs in their own countries and are familiar with MIT’s excellent reputation. Some have learning disabilities and succeed better going at their own pace. And some come to the site because they have a specific science or engineering problem they would like to solve.

Such was the case for two Haitians who wanted to provide solar panels for lighting in their country. Needing guidance in electrical engineering, they turned to OCW. Today their company has provided nearly 60 Haitian towns and villages with solar-powered LED lighting.

Yet beyond such specific and practical uses for the site is its overall goal of getting students excited about science. D’Oliveira says she and her team make a point of including inspirational materials. They might present courses in which students develop technologies to “save the world,” such as a washing machine that requires no electricity and yet is very easy to use. Videos sometimes show student science competitions and the winning projects, with the goal of grabbing students’ attention.

OCW even offers a Highlights for High School companion Web site, which closely follows the Advanced Placement courses for physics, calculus, and biology.

Still, d’Oliveira says she and her team would like the Web site to be better known among science teachers. She says she suspects winning the SPORE award and having an essay about MIT OCW in Science will help.

Science magazine is a great opportunity for us, because I think it’s something that teachers read, and just being in Science lends credibility,” she says.

D’Oliveira thinks OCW can really make a difference in the levels of success science students are able to attain.

“I look at the problems this country is facing with science education,” she says. “These resources could be so helpful.”


Visit the MIT OpenCourseWare Web site.


Michaela Jarvis

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