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An MIT education — no charge

Janet Babin Feb 21, 2007

An MIT education — no charge

Janet Babin Feb 21, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: Tuition this year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is $33,400. Throw on another 13 grand or so for room, board and books, and MIT runs about $46,000 for a nine-month school year.

For those who’d like something . . . cheaper, MIT has an alternative pricing plan. Everything regular students get, except the diploma. Total cost: not much more than an internet connection. Janet Babin has more from the Marketplace Innovations Desk at North Carolina Public Radio.

JANET BABIN: Maybe where someone got their degree doesn’t impress you. But who isn’t curious about what makes some colleges so expensive, and so competitive?

Well now, a few of those elite institutions are pulling back the curtain on the secret formula, making top-notch courses available online for free.

MIT was one of the first. MIT lets you peruse its OpenCourseWare

program, where you can see a class syllabus, review quizzes and answers, and even watch videos of class lectures.

A faculty committee created the program several years ago as it worried that the Internet might pass MIT by.

Online students can follow along, but they don’t have access to professors, and they don’t get any kind of course credit.

And print editor Mark Georgiev says that was fine with him. He’s got a graduate degree from Yale, but wanted to learn how to write computer software. He discovered MIT’s Foundations of Software Engineering class and downloaded it.

MARK GEORGIEV: I didn’t want a certificate, I didn’t want any kind of accreditation, I really just wanted the knowledge. And I also wanted to work at my own pace.

Georgiev finished the course in a few months time. Now, he says, he can now write rudimentary programs. His only expense was buying books.

College students have mixed feelings about success like Georgiev’s. After all, they often pay thousands of dollars in tuition to learn what he did.

PROFESSOR: All right, lets get started. Sorry I’m a little late, good to see you all . . .

At this University of North Carolina graduate business class, some students, like Hong Kong immigrant Anna Hui, applaud the program.

ANNA HUI: It’s not something you can be selfish. Education should not be profit-seeking. Cause, like, a lot of people in this world, they don’t have money to go to college, and this will be the best chance for them to like, get some kind of education.

But an informal survey I did in her business class showed that more than half the students don’t want their courses shared for free.

And it’s not just about the money. Student Denny Lyons says he’d be against it even if he were on a full scholarship.

DENNY LYONS: We’re the ones asking the questions, directing classes. And I guess I have a huge problem with everyone else being able to get benefits off my own intelligence or my own ideas.

But MIT professor Eric von Hippel

says keeping ideas secret is old economic thinking. Society gains when intellectual property is democratized.

ERIC VON HIPPEL: When you put something on the web, like for instance, when MIT puts a course on the web, the result is that other people download it, but also improve it.

About 80 percent of the Institute’s professors take part in the program. But some, like MIT business professor Michael Cusumano

, came into OpenCourse kicking and screaming.

MICHAEL CUSUMANO: It was decided on at the highest levels, and basically we were then told the Institute was going to do this.

Cusamano says MIT sold its assets — and its professors — short, and that could devalue an MIT degree.

CUSUMANO: We are really in the business of selling intellectual property, or intellectual content. Our course material is very important and so, giving it away I think harms the people that are paying tuition.

Cusamano charges that OpenCourse was originally a way for MIT to attract foundation money. The program receives some $25 million that way.

Anne Margulies

is OpenCourseWare’s executive director.

ANNE MARGULIES: Well the motivation was certainly not to make money. MIT’s fundamental mission is to advance education and to serve the world.

So far, the site attracts more than a million visitors a month. MIT hopes to have every course available online by this fall.

I’m Janet Babin for Marketplace.

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