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Faculty discusses placing courses on the web

The OpenCourseWare@MIT (OCW) initiative being discussed in departmental meetings and other small forums on campus was presented to the faculty at its monthly meeting last Wednesday.

After hearing the presentation and discussion that followed, President Charles M. Vest observed that society is "in kind of a brief shining moment" regarding use of the web.

"I would like to think that for at least a brief period of time, we could be a leading source for higher education on the web," he said.

OCW would use the web to provide information about MIT courses, making lecture notes, assignments, examinations and other materials accessible to the public. One anticipated use would be by faculty at other universities, particularly those in developing countries, who are seeking source materials for designing their own curricula.

Participation by MIT faculty would be voluntary, and professors would have final say on which materials are made available.

"This is about showing the world what it is we teach," said Professor Harold Abelson of electrical engineering and computer science, presenting the report to the faculty. "This is about providing distance education for the world."

While enthusiastic about the overall goal, Professor William L. Porter of architecture was concerned that current ideas for implementation ran the risk of presenting MIT as unimaginative with respect to how learning takes place. He also raised the question of what constitutes the content of education, and even how the web is used in connection with education. Associate Professor John R. Williams of civil and environmental engineering wondered if the OCW courses will fare poorly in comparison with those from commercial ventures.

Other topics discussed at the meeting included the new communication requirement, proposed principles on intellectual property and conflict of commitment, and changes in the Rules and Regulations of the Faculty regarding graduate subjects.


Associate Provost Phillip L. Clay reiterated the principles recommended by the Ad Hoc Faculty Committee appointed to study these issues (MIT Tech Talk, January 31).

"Persons holding full-time academic appointments at MIT are expected to devote the bulk of their professional energies and time in service to the MIT community," Professor Clay said. "Faculty should seek the permission of their dean when they have the opportunity to teach at other institutions or when they are presented with opportunities that might conflict with their faculty commitment." He said this principle reflects Policies and Procedures, Section 4.3.

The draft report and related documents may be found at After an open comments period and discussions in Academic Council, a final report will be presented at the May faculty meeting.


Professor Steven R. Hall of aeronautics and astronautics said the new communications requirement was on track to go into effect in thefall. Starting with the Class of 2005, students will be required to take four communication-intensive subjects during their undergraduate career -- two in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and two in their major.

Professor Hall, chair of the subcommittee on the communications requirement, said 86 courses had already been approved as communication-intensive, with the number increasing almost daily. He said 3,600 seats would be available, many more than the 2,000 required.


Faculty chair Steven L. Lerman, professor of civil and environmental engineering, introduced a motion that would allow graduate students to reschedule a test outside of scheduled class time if it conflicts with another academic exercise. The motion also would change the deadline for tests and assignments prior to the final exam.

In other business, Professor Alar Toomre of mathematics, chair of the Committee on Nominations, announced that Professor Stephen C. Graves of the Sloan School would succeed Professor Lerman as chair of the faculty in 2001-02. He replaces Professor Jeffrey H. Shapiro, who was to be the next faculty chair but has been named director of the Research Laboratory of Electronics.

The meeting concluded with Professor Hartley Rogers Jr. of mathematics wondering whether MIT and/or the faculty should take a public position opposing the proposed abolition of the federal estate tax.

"There's no clear consensus on the effect this law might have on MIT," President Charles Vest said. He suggested that further discussion may be in order.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 28, 2001.

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