I was giddy with excitement when I first read about MIT’s OpenCourseWare initiative. All of MIT’s classes online, world class knowledge free for the taking, a “Good Will Hunting” starter kit? This was right about the time that I embarked on my current quest of saw-sharpening, professional development, and re-geekification, so I thought it would consume my life for the entire foreseeable future. Well, it’s about a year later and I’ve taken my first good look at one of the courses and I’ve got a couple warnings for anyone interested in doing an OCW course themself:
1) Many courses do not have audio or video of lectures. The main goal is to provide course materials to anyone interested. This includes a schedule, lecture topics, lecture notes (powerpoints as pdfs), a syllabus, homework assignments, and additional reading materials. It does not include answer keys, solutions, access to faculty or TAs, or any necessary hardware or software resources. Robotics or chemistry, for instance, might be difficult topics to learn using OCW. Math might be a better choice.
Some courses have audio and video of lectures, but it is hit or miss. For instance, in the department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (which accounts for about 25% of MIT undergrads), there are 6 courses that have complete audio/video lectures out of about 175 courses offered. Don’t be fooled by all of the courses listed on the Audio/Video course pages, it includes courses with partial audio or video, pictures, or other materials included. So most of the courses offered give you little more than some PowerPoints, some homework assignments, and a schedule. Not even …
2) Textbooks. For any challenging course, you would need a textbook to learn most of the material, and it’s even more so if you don’t have an instructor. The pages for each course don’t make it clear which textbooks you need (it’s usually in the syllabus), and they give no indication of how much the textbooks might cost. For some people this might not be a problem, and it’s still a bargain compared to MIT tuition, but textbooks, and technical niche books can cost hundreds of dollars apiece, so books for a single course might cost $200 or more.
I know, it sounds like I’m complaining about something that’s free (and that’s something I hate), so instead, I’m offering this as a field guide for other interested souls. So here’s my $.02 regarding MIT’s OCW:
- Budget $100-$250 or more to buy the textbooks
- Unless you’re an excellent self-learner, stick to courses with lecture audio or video
- Courses with specialized hardware (laboratories, engineering tools) or software (simulations, etc) might not be a good choice
- You need discipline because there are no penalties or extrinsic rewards (degrees) for completing the courses
- You need organization because you have to be teacher and student and there are no facilities setup for you
This is if you’re too old to take advantage of MIT’s full-need financial aid.