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MIT OpenCourseWare marks 10th anniversary of pilot site launch

The first materials from 32 courses were published in a pilot site launched 10 years ago last month.
MIT OpenCourseWare's homepage on Sept. 30, 2002.
MIT OpenCourseWare's homepage on Sept. 30, 2002.
Image courtesy of MIT OpenCourseWare

Ten years ago, on Sept. 30, 2002, OpenCourseWare published its first set of materials from MIT courses online. Eighteen months had passed since MIT’s historic announcement on April 4, 2001, that it would share the core material from its entire curriculum freely and openly on the web. Beyond the appointment of its executive director, Anne Margulies, there had been precious little buzz about OCW. Behind the scenes, however, in its newly established headquarters in Building 9, OCW was a hive of activity. A team of technologists and project managers were busily developing the content management systems and internal processes that would allow OCW to meet its ambitious goals. Content specialists were working directly with faculty and teaching staff, poring over class notes and syllabi, to transform raw course material into web content.

The first launch included materials from 32 courses from 16 departments, across a broad variety of topics that included architecture, mathematics, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and computer science. Among them was Professor Gilbert Strang's 18.06 Linear Algebra, which offered 30 video lectures and eventually became one of the all-time most popular courses in the entire OCW catalog.

The publication of those first courses was intended to be a "soft launch," with little fanfare and no formal announcement. Back then, the technological infrastructure for the pilot site was still considered a work-in-progress. OCW technical staff watched the servers closely for any signs of instability. Yet like so many of the outcomes that followed, that first OCW launch far exceeded expectations: Within just one week, the site had received more than 13 million page requests, averaging almost 2 million per day, and 1,500 emails expressing thanks and appreciation.

Things went quickly from there. Within a year, OCW had published 500 courses, something from every department. By 2007, OCW had published materials from across the entire undergraduate and graduate curricula. In the last five years, OCW has been focused on updating and enriching previously published courses, while continuing to expand its list to 2,150 courses. OCW has also introduced a number of innovative new features, including Highlights for High School, OCW Scholar courses, and study groups in collaboration with

In an age of rapid information delivery, it's easy to overlook the scale of human effort behind the OCW website. To publish 2,150 MIT courses required the voluntary contributions of more than 1,400 MIT faculty — busy professors contributing beyond their existing research and teaching responsibilities. Yet every one of them was a willing participant, guided by a bold idea that still defies all market logic: to advance learning worldwide by offering knowledge for free. OCW would not exist without their individual contributions, which collectively represent a truly remarkable act of pure intellectual philanthropy.

Nor should we overlook the hundreds of thousands of hours that OCW staff — publication managers, production specialists and department liaisons — has dedicated to converting that content into the best possible experience for its users. Behind those 2,150 courses are 18,000-plus lecture notes, almost 10,000 problem sets, 1,000 exams, and 1,200 hours of video that had to be systematically reviewed and optimized for the web.

One decade later, a virtual lifetime in Internet years, the OCW website stands as an enduring example of what happens when a pioneering idea captures the imagination of a community like MIT. It remains beacon in the open education movement, and continues to receive numerous awards and recognitions, most recently from the Qatar Foundation and the journal Science. OCW continues to satisfy a growing worldwide demand for advanced knowledge, with more than 18.6 million visits to the site in 2011 and a total of 125 million individuals worldwide accessing the site's content since launch.

More broadly, the influence of the OCW website has transformed the educational landscape. More than 250 universities across the globe have followed MIT's example, and openly published a combined total of 21,000 courses online through the OpenCourseWare Consortium. This groundswell of support, and the sheer quantity of content it generated, has created an open education ecosystem that promises to evolve even further over the next decade.

Daily, OCW still receives letters from educators, students, and independent learners who use the OCW site to enhance their personal knowledge, learn new teaching methods, supplement their own courses, and explore new ideas. Every week, new stories come in about companies that bootstrap innovation by reviewing OCW courses, students who discover domains of knowledge that might never have been open to them, and educators who use OCW to deliver a higher caliber of teaching.

This August, just prior to the 10-year anniversary of the pilot's launch, OCW received this message from a high school student in the United States:
Top tier lectures taught by top tier professors from a top tier university — for free, available to anyone with access to internet. All of it sounds too good to be true. I began watching these lectures an year ago as a supplement to high school studies, but it turns out that OCW's been so much more than a mere supplement. It's been an experience--a surreal one. It almost sounds ridiculous, but here I am, miles away, academically and emotionally bonded to these professors, and awe-struck, laughing, inspired alongside students on the other side of the screen.
The individual gifts of hundreds of MIT faculty, and the hard work of MIT staff, have resulted in a website that truly unlocks knowledge and inspires minds, and will continue to touch the lives of millions for many years to come.

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