So-called "distance learning" over the Internet isn't new. Students have been able to pay for online courses at many institutions, either to receive credit or simply as a noncredit adult-learning experience. Many universities also offer free podcasts (audio or sometimes video material delivered via the Internet).
But the sheer volume and variety of the educational materials being released by MIT and its OCW collaborators is nothing less than stunning.
For example, each of the 29 courses that Tufts University in Medford, Mass., has put online so far is "literally the size of a textbook," says Mary Lee, associate provost and point person for the OCW effort there. The material provides much more than "a skeleton of a course," she says. Visitors to Tufts' OCW course on "Wildlife Medicine" call it is the most comprehensive website on that topic in the world, Dr. Lee says.
What OCW is not, its supporters agree, is a substitute for attending a university.
For one thing, OCW learners aren't able to receive feedback from a professor – or to discuss the course with fellow students. A college education is "really the total package of students interacting with other students, forming networks, interacting with faculty, and that whole environment of being associated with the school," says James Yager, a senior associate dean at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He oversees the OCW program there. His school of public health now offers nearly 40 of its most popular courses for free via OCW. The school's goal is to put 90 to 100 of its 200 or so core courses online within the next year or so. In November, learners from places such as Taiwan, Britain, Australia, Singapore, Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands logged some 80,000 page views of OCW course material, Dr. Yager says.