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OpenCourseWare: College education, without the student loans

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And on research trips to the northernmost Canadian military base – known as Alert – near the Arctic Circle, physicist Wendy Ermold of the Polar Science Center at the University of Washington in Seattle watches Stanford University quantum physics lectures on her iPod.

Unlike places such as the University of Phoenix, which charge – and give degrees – for distance learning courses, OpenCourseWare is free and offers no reward other than knowledge.

The OpenCourseWare concept began in 2003. That year, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology decided it couldn't turn a profit from putting online its hands-on curriculum with an emphasis on laboratory work online. Instead, MIT began providing its syllabi, course notes, and eventually, video and audio lectures online for free. MIT’s OpenCourseWare initiative started by listing 500 courses in 2003. Even that first year the program attracted more than 4 million visits to its web pages.

But today, in less than a decade, the institution has archived 1,897 courses – and in April 2009 alone attracted more than 1 million visits.

Soon, MIT had lots of company. The college’s foray into uncharted education territory spurred a worldwide movement for other colleges to provide OpenCourseWare materials through their institution’s websites and the OpenCourseWare Consortium, which boasts more than 100 million visits since its launch in 2006.

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