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Reflections on decade of open sharing: A new generation of web resources

Mathematics professor Gilbert Strang looks back at OCW 10 years later.
MIT mathematics professor Gilbert Strang
MIT mathematics professor Gilbert Strang

MIT will mark the 10-year anniversary of the announcement of OpenCourseWare in April 2011. To prepare for this milestone, the OCW staff has asked a number of MIT community members who've been involved in the project to reflect on its past and look to what lies ahead.

MIT mathematics professor Gilbert Strang was one of the earliest — and remains one of the most prolific — faculty contributors to MIT OpenCourseWare. His course, 18.06 Linear Algebra, was among the 50 courses published on the OCW proof-of-concept site in fall 2002, and that course has become one of the most visited on the site. The original version of 18.06 and two subsequent updates have together been visited more than 2.25 million times. Through OCW's YouTube channel, lecture videos for 18.06 have been viewed an astounding 1.3 million times.

In addition to 18.06, Strang has published materials from 18.085 Mathematical Methods for Engineers I, 18.086 Mathematical Methods for Engineers II, and 18.327 Wavelets, Filter Banks and Applications, as well as a digital version of his popular calculus textbook. In total, materials published by Strang on OCW have received more than 3.75 million visits. Visitors to his courses regularly send praise: "I can't tell you how grateful I am that you've given me the opportunity to learn this way. You have opened me up to a whole new world!" said one independent learner from the United States.

Strang expresses some amazement at the reception his materials receive. "I was quite surprised when OCW took over my life. And I remain very happy about it. This was a big step, from teaching MIT students (the best job in the world) to teaching students everywhere. The e-mails that come back have been so generous and encouraging that I am constantly urging friends to bring a camera to their lectures."

For Strang, OCW is not just an opportunity to share information, but to influence how a subject like linear algebra is taught. "The goal of 18.06 Linear Algebra and 18.085 Computational Science and Engineering is to teach as much as possible of the mathematics that students need. This is different in spirit from courses that are "theorem-based" as linear algebra used to be. Luckily the new approach fits naturally with videos. A whole new audience responds when we emphasize that a subject is useful as well as beautiful."

In the past year, Strang has embarked on an ambitious new project in cooperation with the OCW team. He's been developing a new series of videos specifically for the OCW site. Called "Highlights of Calculus," this series attempts to make calculus accessible to a broad audience. The videos are accompanied by summary slides and practice problems.

Strang sees resources such as these videos as the future of education, particularly at the secondary education level.

"I think we will see this approach to education move powerfully into high schools. I know we will see the decline of standard textbooks as the cornerstone of teaching. Students look on the web now (as we all do) and that huge demand will surely be supplied! I am proud of MIT that it stepped forward and gave help freely. It was the right thing to do."

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