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Dustin Darcy of Los Angeles has taken MIT courses online

Ivy League for free

The neoclassical ideal of liberal education prospers online

Issue: "Signs and wonders," Jan. 26, 2008

In his plan for the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson expressed his vision of higher education: "to develop the reasoning facilities of our youth, enlarge their minds, and instill in them the precepts of virtue and order; to enlighten them with mathematical and physical sciences, which advance the arts and administer to the health, the subsistence and the comforts of human life." Jefferson might not be able to discern this shining edifice in the overpriced incubator of activism that the American university has become. But a hopeful outline is taking shape in an unexpected quarter.

Since 2002, Massachusetts Institute of Technology has put over 90 percent of its courses-about 1,800 in all-online for anyone to access. For free. MIT is the originator and leader of the OpenCourseWare movement, which now includes 120 universities worldwide and whose latest acquisition is Yale.

An Ivy League education for free? Not quite, but dedicated autodidacts can access seven Yale courses (more to come), including Introductions to the Old Testament, Psychology, and Political Philosophy; Fundamentals of Physics; Modern Poetry; and Death (a philosophical inquiry, not a how-to). These are not programs adapted to "continuing education," but the actual courses taken by students who pay $45,000 per year for the privilege.

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Materials may include video or audio lectures, with course syllabus, suggested readings and applicable problem sets or exercises, all downloaded from the course site. Enrollment is not necessary; just go to the site. Courses are offered on an audit-only basis, with no credit and no interaction with the professor. Still, a highly motivated auditor could easily receive the same educational value as a preppie whose parents are footing the bill for an Ivy League diploma.

Possibilities abound: Professionals could hone their knowledge in a given field by organizing seminars around a course from Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health. An astronomy club could download Yale's Frontiers and Controversies in Astrophysics and hold their liveliest meetings ever. A homeschooler could study for advanced placement with MIT's "Highlights for High School" program. A high-school teacher in North Dakota could incorporate Tufts University math classes into her curriculum for gifted students, all at no charge and allowable under the licensing agreement.

The OpenCourseWare Consortium also includes Harvard Law School, Michigan State, UMass Boston, UC Irvine, and Notre Dame. Internationally, institutions in Vietnam, South Africa, Colombia, and Australia are taking part (see ocwconsortium.org for a full list).

Two features of OpenCourseWare are especially interesting. First, its sheer liberality. According to Anne Margulies, director of the MIT program, "We believe strongly that education can be best advanced when knowledge is shared openly and freely." Enthusiastic response has been their reward: 1.4 million visits per month to their website, accompanied by grateful emails from all over the world.

Second, most of the courses offered are precisely the "mathematical and physical sciences" that Thomas Jefferson recommended: no boutique "social science" offerings like Frontiers in Rap Music. It's as if the coordinators know that students in the real world have no interest in fripperies. They're looking for real value before investing their valuable time.

The OpenCourseWare movement is rightly praised as a breakthrough in providing high-quality information to an information age. But on a deeper level, it's a breakthrough of another kind: the neo-classical ideal of a liberal education wrestling free of its ivory-tower bonds to reassert itself on the internet.

That ideal has long roots, going back to Solomon: "Get wisdom, get insight. . . . Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her, and she will guard you" (Proverbs 4:5-6). When a college education came to be widely regarded as career enhancement, the price tag shot up-and, in some ways, the quality went down. A free non-credit education online (which offers no immediate material advantage) is a return to the notion of knowledge for its own sake. Get wisdom, get insight-not for what you can do with it, but what it will do with you.

If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to jcheaney@worldmag.com.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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