Full marks to MIT for sharing its knowledge

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 March, 2007, 12:00am

In 2001, when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology debated putting its course materials online for free access, there were rumblings among its faculty that it would be giving away a pricey asset. That is no longer a cause for concern; by the end of this year, the mammoth task of uploading the contents of its 1,800 courses should be completed.

The bold move has prompted similar efforts by other universities and has revolutionised the learning process. Countless teachers, students and self-learners all over the world have benefited from this selfless attempt to share knowledge.

A little-known fact about this imaginative initiative was the involvement of an academic from Hong Kong. Professor of ocean engineering Dick K.P. Yue was one of the visionaries behind the OpenCourse Ware project. At a press conference announcing it, he recalled how he was inspired by an MIT textbook that his father gave him when he was growing up in Hong Kong. 'MIT will miss its goal if it reaches just the students within its walls and not in the larger world,' he said. Indeed, most of those who have since made use of MIT's course materials on the Web can never hope to study at the university.

A no less profound impact of the project is its effects on teachers. Now that students can get all the teaching materials on the Web, any self-respecting teacher should ask himself or herself: what am I doing in class? The altruistic sharing of teaching notes via the internet has put to shame those who still consider their course materials to be proprietary. Instead of reciting their notes in class, they should be focusing on how to stimulate their students to think beyond what they have already learned from reading the materials.

History has shown that the spread of knowledge depends on it being widely shared. The forces of progress unleashed by a few wise men can never hope to match the impact of an educated population with access to all kinds of publications. What the internet has done in facilitating the circulation of knowledge in this age of information is akin to what the invention of printing and the setting up of libraries achieved in previous eras.

Since MIT's pioneering move, internet search engine Google has embarked on an even more impressive project to scan every literary work into digital format and put them online. Yahoo, its arch-rival, has teamed up with Microsoft to create a 'common pot' of digitised books from among university collections.

Knowledge has indeed become only a mouse click away. That has not obviated the need for good teachers. If nothing else, their service in guiding novice learners to distinguish between garbage and gems from the wide array of information available on the Web has become even more valuable. MIT has given away its course materials, but its standing as an institution of higher learning has grown, not shrunk. It has shown that altruism in sharing knowledge pays.