Opening University Offerings to the World

  • Education
  • 2002

In 2001, the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told the president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that for $100 million his university could put every one of its courses online—reading lists, lecture videos, lecture notes, homework sets and solutions, exams. Online users would have no access to MIT faculty, and would not get academic credit, but the entire bounty of one of the world’s great universities—more than 1,800 courses—would be available at no charge to the world’s huddled intellects yearning to breathe free. The Mellon Foundation invited the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to be their partner in paying for this gift to learners, and each organization put up an initial $5.5 million to launch a pilot program that put the first 50 MIT courses on line in 2002. By 2007 they had the entire MIT curriculum available on the Internet—every course in 33 different academic disciplines.

By 2014, several hundred additional new courses had been added, and more than 152 million individuals had sampled what MIT was calling its “OpenCourseWare.” In addition, a new program allowed online students to pay a small fee and take exams that would qualify them for a special “MITx” credential showing they had successfully completed the course. As other universities like Johns Hopkins, Rice, Yale, Stanford, and Carnegie Mellon approached donors for help putting their offerings on line, additional foundations like MacArthur and Gates, plus numerous individual donors, as well as companies like Dow and Lockheed Martin, began to make grants to pay for the $10,000-$15,000 it costs to put an average course online.

In its first dozen years leading this philanthropic effort, the Hewlett Foundation alone spent approximately $150 million. It also provided invaluable leadership toward opening up the previously closed world of academe—for instance, overcoming faculty resistance against sharing of their “intellectual property” by building up the Creative Commons process for licensing fair uses of curricula and lectures. The Hewlett Foundation also provided funds to create the Open Education Consortium. This got more than 250 universities involved in putting free instructional material on the Internet, totaling about 15,000 courses in 20 different languages as of 2014.