Can I become an expert in my field using MIT OpenCourseWare?

You may not earn an official MIT degree, but you might come close.

Last year, 12,445 high school students applied to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the No. 7-ranked U.S. university by U.S. News and World Report. Almost 11,000 of those students received slim, devastating rejection letters a few months later. The selective school admits a mere 12.5 percent of applicants each year, shattering the dreams of thousands of young brainiacs [source: U.S. News & World Report].

MIT's OpenCourseWare initiative, however, may soften the blow for those crestfallen students by allowing them to access many of the school's class materials online free. The university's high standards and high tuition ($45,000, if you include room and board) have precluded many people from studying there, but MIT OpenCourseWare is less discriminating, putting boundless knowledge at the fingertips of anyone with an Internet connection.


Launched in September 2002, MIT OpenCourseWare gives people free access to practically all of the content of the 1,800 graduate and undergraduate courses from all five of MIT's schools. Class syllabi, lecture notes, problem sets, exams, reading lists and video lectures are all available. In addition, MIT has partnered with four other schools that are officially translating the materials into Spanish, Portuguese, simplified and traditional Chinese, and Thai for their own Web sites.

Since the Web site went live, more than 40 million unique visitors have stopped by, and it gets 1 million hits a month. Those users have come from more than 215 countries and territories around the world [source: MIT: Site Statistics, The OpenCourseWare Project].

If you think the majority of users are rejected MIT applicants, think again. These knowledge-hungry people break down as follows:

  • Self-learners, meaning they're not students or teachers, but people who simply want to learn or to keep current with developments in their field, make up 49 percent.
  • Students -- graduate, undergraduate and even high school -- who may be using the courseware to complement a class they're currently taking comprise 32 percent.
  • Educators, who often rely on the site to prepare or develop courses they're teaching, come in at 16 percent.

[source: MIT: Site Statistics]

The MIT program has the potential to sharpen anyone's game. Find out how people around the world have used the online materials to excel in their area of expertise and learn how the Web site differs from the real thing next.


MIT OpenCourseWare in Action

You may never set foo­t on MIT's campus, but you can access 1,800 of the school's courses online with OpenCourseWare.
Getty Images

Everyone loves a free lunch, or a free education, as the case may be. According to MIT, students praise the quality of the OpenCourseWare video lectures, citing them as indispensable tools in helping them to pass difficult courses they've taken. Teachers, meanwhile, download lesson plans for their classes, brush up on subjects they haven't taught in a while and use OpenCourseWare to make up for the resources their schools lack. Self-learners, too, like the site's resources, using the lectures, videos and other materials for career development and to satisfy their curiosity.

But could MIT OpenCourseWare make you an expert in your field? That's debatable. Not all courses are posted in their entirety, and you may not always find those helpful video lectures or solutions to handouts. And no matter how hard you work or how many courses you complete, you can't earn an MIT degree or claim credit hours.


Let's say you want to become an architect. You can plow through all 37 undergraduate and 69 graduate architecture-related courses posted on the site until you're blue in the face, but you still can't flaunt your master's degree in architecture afterward. If you're a dedicated student, you can certainly become knowledgeable about urban design, furniture making and many other topics. If you're really sharp, you might even design your own house, but you won't necessarily be able to get a job. Last time we checked, having a master's degree in OpenCourseWare wasn't one of the criteria for scoring a contract. After all, would you hire someone to build your home knowing that he gained his expertise through a one-sided interaction with the computer?

On the other hand, if you're looking for employment somewhere that hires based on skills alone, you may be able to use OpenCourseWare to your advantage, especially if you already have a good base from which to build. With so much information readily available, why couldn't you become an expert in your chosen area? That assumes you can make it through much of the admittedly difficult course material.

Even if you're looking to take less technical classes such as expository writing, you'll be at a distinct disadvantage. After all, as much as learning is an individual pursuit, it relies upon the assistance of others. With MIT OpenCourseWare, you won't get to participate in class discussions. Nor will you receive constructive criticism on your work or be able to ask questions of your professors.

The success of OpenCourseWare is due to those professors. It's their teaching materials that are being published for the world to see. More than 90 percent of MIT instructors have voluntarily contributed to the site [source: MIT: President's Message]. They also came up with the idea. Since a faculty committee first proposed the OpenCourseWare idea in 2000 as a way to use the Internet to further the university's mission to spread knowledge, more than 150 other universities have started their own versions [source: MIT: President's Message].

Whether you're a student, teacher or just a curious person, you're bound to find something in MIT OpenCourseWare that interests you. From aeronautics and nuclear science to writing and humanistic studies, the program's online resources could keep you busy for years to come. And while it's not the same as an MIT education, it may be the next best thing.

­For more information on MIT OpenCourseWare and related topics, explore the links on the following page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links

  • Lombardi, Candace. "MIT OpenCourseWare expands for high school students." CNET Networks. Nov. 28, 2007. (May 15, 2008)
  • MIT. "MIT OpenCourseWare." 2008. (May 15, 2008)
  • MIT. "President's Message." 2008. (May 16, 2008)
  • MIT. "Site Statistics." 2008. (May 16, 2008)
  • MIT. "The MIT OpenCourseWare Project." (May 16, 2008)
  • MIT. "Unlocking Knowledge, Empowering Minds." May 2006. (May 16, 2008)
  • U.S. News & World Report. "America's Best Colleges 2008." 2008. (May 15, 2008) f/t1natudoc_brief.php