Scitech | Education minus the tuition

Students use free, online MIT lectures as a substitute for class

If I had known four years ago what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have gone to McGill. Namely, that courses could be free. Online, open to the public, accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Educational resources are now becoming available for free – and people are starting to feel that learning doesn’t have to come with a price tag.

A leader in open education is MIT. With the release of their web site OpenCourseWare (OCW) in 2002, MIT made course material, assignments, videos, and exams free to the public, no registration required. Starting with just 50 courses, OCW has since grown to offer 1,900 courses online. On the web site, teachers, students, and self-learners alike have praised its uses. There are a number of students at McGill who use OCW to study for classes at McGill.

Eric Notarangelo, a U1 student in atmospheric sciences, makes extensive use of OCW for two of his classes: Calculus 3 (MATH 222) and Heat and Waves (PHYS 232). A friend had introduced him to the web site about four weeks into his Calc 3 class. Since then, he believes about 40 to 70 per cent of the class uses the MIT resource.

“The course has a really bad professor,“ said Notarangelo. “It would be ideal to use the web site as a supplement but instead I use it as a substitution.”

McGill isn’t that far behind when it comes to getting lectures up on the web. In fact, the University has been recording lectures for over 10 years – the majority of which seem to be for science classes. In 2000, chemistry professors Ariel Fenster and David Harpp were involved in the creation of “COOL” (COurses OnLine), a recording system which allowed them to document their lectures and put them online for students’ use.

“It’s silly putting lots of time into a lecture and to have it vanish with no opportunity to retrieve it,” said Harpp.

Fenster added that there is a “demand and need for this,” and both believe that the system helps professors, TAs, and especially students. Harpp pointed out that the ability to understand certain material differs from student to student.

“Recorded lectures aid students who are not necessarily turned onto this material at 8:30 in the morning,” Harpp said.

One of the biggest concerns with recorded lectures is the drop in attendance, something that both Harpp and Fenster concede does happen.

“But at least the students are learning and using the material,” said Harpp. “It’s a bit of an ego situation,” added Fenster. “What’s important is that the student learns.”

Still, not every McGill professor is following suit. “None of my classes record their lectures this year,” Notarangelo said.

With OCW available for free and COOL open to the public, it’s easy to question how much money we give McGill every year. Why pay tuition when we can get a great education just by watching lectures all day?
Fenster reminded me that part of our tuition is actually being used to pay for the technology that enables these online programs. And according to the OCW web site, each course published requires an investment of $10,000 to $15,000 for compiling, licensing, and formatting the materials.

Ideally, education wouldn’t have a price on it. But it seems like someone, somewhere has to foot the bill. And you can’t walk away from one of these sites with a degree. Still, if I ever decided to go back to school, I don’t know if I’ll be paying through the nose to walk an ivy-covered campus when there are other options available. With more and more open courses, I think my future education is only a few clicks away.


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