In This Issue
Fall Bridge on Open Educational Resources
September 26, 2016 Volume 46 Issue 3

MIT OpenCourseWare A Leader in Open Education

Monday, September 26, 2016

Author: Cecilia d’Oliveira and Jeffrey S. Lazarus

MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW; is a free, publicly accessible Web-based resource that offers high-quality educational materials from more than 2,300 courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—virtually the entire graduate and undergraduate curriculum, reflecting the teaching in all five MIT schools and 33 academic units. This broad coverage in all disciplines makes OCW unique among open education offerings. MIT continually updates OCW, adding new courses as they become available and refreshing existing courses with new materials. More than 1,000 MIT OCW courses have been independently translated into at least 10 languages.

Through OCW,1 MIT faculty share their teaching materials with teachers and learners around the world. Educators use these resources for teaching and curriculum development, while students and others draw on them for self-study or supplementary use.

By longstanding MIT policy, in most cases faculty members own the intellectual property rights in course materials they author (this is not universally true in academia). OCW course materials are offered under a Creative Commons license and may be freely used, copied, distributed, translated, and modified by anyone anywhere in the world for noncommercial educational purposes. OCW attracts about 2.5 million visits in a typical month, and to date more than 200 million people from virtually every country have accessed these resources. OCW is also used widely on campus at MIT.

From the start, the OCW mission has been twofold:

  1. Publish the materials used in MIT courses based on free and open principles, and
  2. inspire others to do the same.

The MIT faculty who first proposed OCW embraced the concept of free and open access to educational materials because they believed that open sharing would encourage other educators to use the resources to enrich their own teaching, and that free and open access would reduce financial, geographic, and political barriers to education for a worldwide audience of learners eager for knowledge. This article traces the evolution of OCW and how it has helped to validate the faculty’s premise.

OpenCourseWare and the MIT Faculty

MIT faculty are the engine that powers OCW, voluntarily contributing almost all the course materials, which they have created. What motivates them to do this? First, OCW was the brainchild of MIT faculty, not an administrative undertaking (see Miyagawa in this issue). Nevertheless, there was widespread skepticism and debate among the faculty.

OCW needed a good cross section of faculty to sign on in order to pilot the concept, help work out kinks in the publication process, and demonstrate that it would produce a good result that would, everyone hoped, be well received by the public. Sympathetic faculty were recruited and participation was initially incentivized with a modest financial stipend using grant funds earmarked for that purpose (the stipend was reduced over time and eliminated in 2007).

OCW did indeed catch on, and website traffic, user survey response, unsolicited email feedback, media reviews, and awards2 exceeded all expectations. Success breeds success, and more faculty agreed to publish their materials. By the time OCW reached 1,800 courses in 2007, well over 70 percent of faculty had participated. Since then the number of active faculty represented on OCW has varied from 60 percent to 70 percent, reflecting faculty turnover and availability of sufficient OCW resources to meet publishing demand.

Some faculty draw a comparison between publishing their course materials on OCW and publishing their research results. OCW provides a platform for showcasing the instructional dimension of faculty work, recognition of which historically has been subordinated to research. Moreover, as MIT Professor Paul Penfield put it back at the start of OCW, “Everybody knows that the way to make progress in science is by using the best results of others—‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ is one way of expressing this idea. That’s why we publish scientific results. OCW will let the same thing happen in education.”3

Faculty benefit in other ways as well. For example, through OCW they see what and how their colleagues are teaching in other courses and disciplines. For some OCW is a helpful tool for advising students. And a 2005 faculty survey found that about a third of faculty believed that their participation in OCW helped them improve their on-campus courses.

While each contributor may have a somewhat different perspective on the value of OCW and reasons for participating, their views mostly come down to this: They love teaching and, in line with MIT’s core mission, they believe their purpose is to create and impart knowledge not only to MIT students but to society at large.

OCW: A Record of Innovation

Today, OpenCourseWare is a cornerstone of MIT’s commitment to open sharing of educational resources. OCW continues to grow, with more new and updated courses, more video and interactive resources, and enhancements like OCW Scholar and OCW Educator. Table 1 summarizes milestones over the past 15 years.

Table 1

Content and Features

Core Publication

The core of OCW is publication of the materials that faculty use in their on-campus courses. Typical content may include:

  • Planning materials—syllabus, calendar, pedagogical statement, and faculty introduction of the course
  • Subject matter content—lecture notes, reading lists, full-text readings, video/audio lectures
  • Learning activities—problem sets and solutions, essay assignments, quizzes, exams, labs, and projects

Some OCW courses have multiple versions, reflecting their evolution over time. Not surprisingly, course content in some disciplines (e.g., the life sciences) is more susceptible to change than that of others (e.g., history). OCW updates courses based on faculty requests, obsolescence of content, and available staff resources.

Figure 1

Figure 1 depicts the broad array of MIT’s undergraduate OCW course offerings and the fact that a large part of the undergraduate curriculum is represented on OCW (the extensive coverage of graduate courses is not shown).

Highlights for High School (HFHS)

OCW features a variety of material that leverages existing courseware to serve audiences with special interests. HFHS (/high-school4) was the first such special feature, added in 2007. It presents OCW materials that are most useful for high school students and teachers. Its primary goal is to inspire high school students to pursue studies in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects, though it also has many resources in the humanities and social studies.

Students use HFHS materials to supplement their course work, to study subjects not offered in their schools, and to prepare for exams (including Advanced Placement tests). Teachers and parents of homeschoolers use these resources for course preparation, assignments, independent study projects, and other innovative teaching purposes.

The HFHS website is organized into two main sections: Subjects and Exam Preparation. The subjects are those that high school students are likely to encounter, such as mathematics, physics, and biology. The Exam Preparation section, aimed at students who are getting ready to take AP exams in biology, calculus, chemistry, or physics, offers materials to supplement the students’ classroom learning. Relevant OCW course materials are easily searchable by topic.

The ChemLab Boot Camp (/high-school/chemistry/chemistry-lab-boot-camp) is an innovative video series in a reality TV format that follows a group of freshmen through a 4-week course that introduces them to an MIT chemistry lab environment (the series was part of the 2012 MIT-Dow Chemistry Outreach Project). Additional HFHS materials are developed by MIT students in the MIT Educational Studies Program (ESP).5

HFHS averages about 45,000 visits per month.

OCW Scholar

In 2010, OCW received a 3-year grant of $2 million from the Stanton Foundation to publish materials for foundational courses structured for independent study. These OCW Scholar (/courses/ocw-scholar) courses are relatively complete first-year college-level core courses designed for independent learners who may have limited access to resources such as textbooks, libraries, or subject-matter experts. Scholar courses feature

  • units organized into learning modules that take the learner through a logical progression of course topics;
  • complete lecture videos by world-class MIT faculty;
  • richer content than “regular” OCW courses, including (depending on the course) detailed notes and slides integrated from multiple MIT on-campus courses as well as new content specifically developed for the Scholar course;
  • applets, simulations, and multimedia visualizations to illustrate concepts;
  • learning aids such as video “recitations” showing step-by-step problem-solving techniques as well as homework problems and exams with explanations and solutions; and
  • links to selected websites with related materials for further study.

There are 12 Scholar courses currently available, with another in the pipeline.

OCW Educator

OCW Educator (/educator) was conceived by the OCW Faculty Advisory Committee, and its two principal goals are to

  • articulate and share the educational ideas, practices, and pedagogical expertise of MIT faculty; and
  • enhance users’ (especially educators’) ability to make the best use of OCW materials by helping them understand the context and manner in which the materials are used on campus.

The primary component of OCW Educator is This Course at MIT (/courses/this-course-at-mit), which provides background about how the course has been taught at MIT, including course outcomes, prerequisites, other curriculum information, the kinds of students taking the class, assessments, and student time investment.

This section often includes Instructor Insights about how they structured and taught the course. The Insights section may also include video interviews with the instructor and video of classroom activities.

OCW Educator also provides a structure and format for publishing project-based or experiential courses, which do not align well with standard OCW content as they have no syllabus or lecture notes, for example. One such course is 18.821 Project Laboratory in Mathematics (/courses/mathematics/18-821-project-laboratory-in- mathemati cs-spring-2013), in which students do mathematics research. The site has extensive observations about how the course works and why it affords an extraordinary learning experience.

A related resource on OCW is the MIT Curriculum Guide (/courses/mit-curriculum-guide), designed to help educators and other users understand how MIT sequences its courses in each discipline and what courses are required for a complete program of study.

OCW Educator supports a new role for OCW as education at MIT is transformed through the use of digital technologies and new research-based teaching practices: using the Internet to inspire and enhance innovative classroom teaching, both at MIT and around the world, by disseminating what faculty at MIT are doing and learning.

Supplemental Resources

More than 50 Supplemental Resources (/resources)—videos, textbooks, teaching guides, manuals on lab techniques, and background materials—help educators and learners get the most out of OCW. They do not necessarily correspond to a specific OCW course, but may instead be relevant to many different courses.


Other organizations and institutions translate OCW content for their audiences and deliver the translated versions on their own websites. Languages include Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese (simple and classical), Thai, Turkish, Farsi, Arabic, Japanese, French, and Korean. We are aware of more than 1,000 translations of MIT OCW courses. This number includes multiple translations of certain popular courses.

Some institutions are formal “translation affiliates”—they share the goals of OCW and have agreed to uphold certain quality assurance and open licensing standards. MIT OCW links to affiliate-translated courses from their corresponding OCW courses and from the OCW course finder page (/courses/translated-courses).

Search Features

A variety of tools help users navigate OCW’s vast collection of courses and other educational assets. The OCW search engine (powered by the Google Search Appliance) can be set to retrieve either whole courses or specific resources based on the user’s search criteria. A customized course finder feature can identify OCW courses by topic, MIT department, or MIT course number.

The OCW homepage presents convenient lists based on popular search categories such as courses with audio/video lectures, online textbooks, most visited courses, newly published courses, OCW Educator pages, OCW Scholar courses, and Supplemental Resources. From the OCW Educator page, users can perform course searches based on instructional approach or different types of teaching materials (e.g., lecture notes, problem sets). Users can also find links to all courses from translation affiliates.

Some subjects appear in many courses scattered throughout MIT’s complex academic structure. OCW pulls together relevant materials from all MIT schools and departments, spanning courses related to energy, entrepreneurship, the environment, introductory programming, life sciences, and transportation. For example, energy, an area in which the institute has been a research leader throughout its history, includes some 50 courses in physics, engineering, environment, economics, and management, among others.

Another feature, not part of OCW per se but accessible via OCW, is Crosslinks (/courses/crosslinks; see Miller et al. in this issue), a study site maintained by MIT students that connects topics across courses. Every topic page has links to materials that MIT students have found helpful, organized into five sections:

  • learn—links to courses and other resources that explain the topic
  • prepare—prerequisite topics useful for understanding the concept
  • relate—related topics
  • advance—topics that “come after” or build on the topic
  • apply—real-life, interesting applications of the topic.

Many Crosslinks topics point to materials in OCW courses, which in turn have links to relevant topics on the Crosslinks site.

Ensuring that users have the tools to find what they need on the OCW website is an ongoing challenge and improving this experience is a high priority for site curators.


OCW uses a blog, a monthly online newsletter, Facebook, and Twitter to keep subscribers and followers informed of new courses, new features, and other developments. Currently there are about 85,000 blog readers, 250,000 newsletter subscribers, 300,000 Facebook followers, and 150,000 Twitter followers. Because OCW use is completely anonymous (it requires no registration or signup), direct communication is possible only with users who have either signed up for one or more of the online outreach services or initiated contact through email or the Contact Us form on the website. To date, OCW has received and processed over 180,000 inquiries from users.

Notices on the website direct users’ attention to OCW news or items of interest. The subscriber lists and website “ads” are used to encourage people to donate to OCW during periodic online fundraising campaigns. There is no commercial advertising on OCW.

Production and Distribution


Although it has grown enormously in size, richness, and features, OCW is essentially a simple website with mostly static content. Its implementation in spring 2002 was a “proof of concept,” quietly initiated with 32 courses, all hand-coded HTML web pages on a server at MIT. But with the high-profile fall 2003 launch of 500 courses, which required more staff working with more faculty, OCW had to develop a systematic, scalable production method, workflow, and supporting technical infrastructure. And so began the development of a more sustainable publication process (while simultaneously continuing to develop course content web pages).

Figure 2

The process has six steps (figure 2). The three primary goals of the publication process are to (1) promote a steady pipeline of new and updated materials to keep OCW vibrant and current, (2) ensure a very high quality, polished publication that meets the high standards of MIT faculty, and (3) minimize the burden on faculty who volunteer to contribute their materials.

In the early days OCW tracked all activities associated with producing a course via an elaborate system of Post-It notes on whiteboards. In 2003 work began on development of a customized content management system (CMS) based on a Microsoft CMS product available at the time. Initially, the design goals for the CMS were to manage content at the course and resource level, manage the website “global -pages,” provide a platform that would support team collaboration, and interoperate with OCW’s worldwide content distribution system provided by Akamai (see below). OCW also built a companion FileMaker (FM) workflow management and tracking system to capture detailed course status and workflow information not included in the CMS.

Enhancements were regularly made to the CMS and FM platforms to support the OCW publication process, including through faculty recruitment, DSpace archiving, website analytics reporting, and user feedback management.

In 2010, working with MIT Information Services and Technology and the MIT Libraries, OCW completed a landmark project to replace its CMS. The new system, still in operation, is based on the open-source Plone software and enabled significant improvements in OCW website usability and features. But the infrastructure is now reaching a point when it too will need to be replaced.

With these and other tools developed over the years OCW’s operational efficiency and effectiveness greatly improved. For example, a deliberative site curation process affords greater use of the breadth and depth of OCW publication, improving its value and usability. Site curation involves activities such as analysis and improvement of a course portfolio’s currency and relevance to the MIT curriculum in order to identify materials in need of update as well as gaps between courses published on OCW and the actual curriculum taught at MIT.

To minimize the faculty time commitment for participating in OCW, most of the actual work of preparing a course for publication is managed by OCW staff in collaboration with Sapient Corporation, an outside service provider that handles much of the content data entry and website authoring. Faculty make their materials available, identify third-party “objects” in their materials that have been created by others, consult on the preparation and display of their materials, and approve the final result. OCW strives to keep faculty burden to no more than five hours per published course, on average. By contrast, other models of online course publication, such as MOOCs, require a much greater commitment of faculty or teaching team time.

While much of the publication process is fairly routine and mechanical, three elements warrant special mention: intellectual property, accessibility, and archiving.

Intellectual Property

The intellectual property (IP) process seeks to manage the use of third-party materials (or “objects”) in full compliance with copyright laws and MIT policies. Such objects might include text, graphics, charts, tables, photos, video or audio clips, software tools, simulations, and other digital resources.

It is common for faculty to use third-party objects in their classroom teaching, but publishing such materials, particularly under the OCW Creative Commons license (/terms/#cc),6 typically requires permission of the copyright holder unless the object is in the public domain. Accordingly, the OCW publication process includes a rigorous scan for third-party objects and a copyright clearance procedure.

Sometimes, objects that meet certain criteria may be used under the fair use doctrine, the right, in some circumstances, to use copyrighted material without seeking permission of the copyright holder and without paying royalties. It is an explicit feature of copyright law in the United States and some other countries. In 2009 MIT OCW collaborated with several other institutions to develop a Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for OpenCourseWare, an important tool to guide practitioners in fair use matters, increase awareness of fair use rights, and reduce risk associated with copyright infringement.7

The FileMaker tracking system includes detailed records of third-party IP objects used in the course -materials and a semiautomated system for emailing copyright owners with permission requests. Objects for which permission cannot be obtained and which cannot be used under the fair use doctrine are replaced or dropped.


Accessibility features are added to courses to broaden the reach of OCW to learners with disabilities. For example, materials are formatted and tagged so that they can be interpreted by automated screen readers, and video materials are enhanced with subtitles and transcripts. These features also help students whose native language is not English.


When a course is updated, OCW consults with the faculty member to determine the disposition of the older version. If it covers different topics or was taught by a different professor in a different way, it is typically maintained with cross-referencing links. If the older version is entirely obsolete, it is archived to DSpace, a digital repository service of the MIT Libraries. Archived courses on DSpace remain accessible via links from the main OCW website. There are nearly 1,000 archived OCW courses.

Worldwide Distribution

OCW Website

From the beginning OCW has worked with Akamai Technologies, Inc. for worldwide distribution of the OCW website content. The OCW CMS and related websites that feed the Akamai network are hosted on the MIT network. This arrangement has proved to be very reliable and scalable.

Video Hosting

In 2008 OCW began delivering video and audio materials through alternative services because of the high bandwidth requirements and consequent high cost of using the Akamai services. Today, OCW video/audio materials are hosted and distributed through YouTube, iTunes U,, and Internet Archive.

OCW video materials comprise thousands of hours of content, including more than 100 full-course video lecture series for some of the most popular courses and supplemental resources, as well as video clips and demonstrations for many more. To date, iTunes U and YouTube together have supplied about 160 million video downloads. These free services replaced bandwidth that OCW would otherwise have had to buy from Akamai.

Subtitles and transcripts are provided for many OCW videos, with the capacity for interactive searching based on the syncing of transcripts and videos, taking the user to the exact place in the video where the search term is spoken.


Users can download individual courses in zip files for offline use. Once downloaded, access to the course does not require an Internet connection. To date, OCW has delivered about 25 million course downloads.

Mirror Site Program

For users in certain developing regions of the world, Internet access is cost prohibitive, unreliable, or nonexistent. OCW helps bridge the “digital divide” through its mirror site program.

Since 2006, the program has provided OCW content on external hard drives, with updates via low-bandwidth-compatible rsync service, to educational institutions in areas with limited Internet access. There are now more than 350 such mirror sites, primarily in African and South Asian countries such as Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe.

Local educational institutions become OCW mirror site affiliates and agree to host OCW materials openly and freely under the OCW Creative Commons license. Affiliates also agree to promote OCW use among their constituents and provide a local contact for content updates and monthly usage data.

Most OCW mirror site affiliates are colleges or universities that have good local area networks but may have access only to costly or weak Internet infrastructures. Nonprofit organizations, ministries of education, and Internet service providers are also OCW affiliates. All technical and coordination efforts are provided on a volunteer basis.

The program has been greatly facilitated by MIT students choosing to serve their home or host countries and help make OCW available locally. Students on MIT Public Service Center fellowships or internships through the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) have personally installed OCW on local campuses and used the resource to teach courses and topics in mathematics and science.

Translation Affiliate Websites

As described earlier, translated MIT OCW courses are hosted on their home institutions’ websites.

Use and Impact

Global Audience

MIT conducts ongoing research and data collection to evaluate OCW according to the following three dimensions:

  • Access: traffic levels (figure 3), users’ educational roles and profiles, geographic location, and the technical conditions under which they access OCW;
  • Use: users’ goals in using OCW, what materials they use, and their levels of success in accomplishing their goals with the materials; and
  • Impact: impacts of OCW on the lives and experiences of users and on educational practices worldwide.

Figure 3

Evaluation is based on techniques and data sources such as web analytics, surveys, interview protocols, and user email feedback. Data collection through web analytics is continuous. A periodic comprehensive user survey randomly launches from the OCW website, complemented by occasional surveys of specific audiences and stakeholders.

OCW serves a global audience. As shown in table 2, nearly 60 percent of OCW website traffic has originated outside the United States.

Table 2

For analytical purposes, OCW users are categorized as follows:

  • Educators at all levels from high school up (9 percent), who may adopt or adapt the materials for their own teaching purposes; many also use OCW for reference or to enhance their understanding of subject matter.
  • Students enrolled in educational programs (42 percent), who may use the materials for reference, practice exercises, mapping out their program of study, or pursuing personal interests.
  • Independent learners (43 percent), who find the materials helpful for enhancing their personal knowledge either from the materials themselves or from the many references, readings, and other resources.
  • Others (6 percent).

Use at MIT

In addition to its service to a worldwide audience, OCW has significant impact on campus at MIT among both faculty and students. The latter use OCW resources such as problem sets and exams for study and practice, and freshmen report that they checked out MIT by looking at OCW before deciding to apply. Instructors often refer students to OCW for part of their coursework as well as in the classroom. Beyond the campus, alumni access OCW materials to continue their lifelong learning and to keep abreast of academic developments at MIT.

Several surveys over the years have consistently indicated that about half of the MIT student population use OCW to select classes. They look ahead to courses and concepts they will study in subsequent years, review concepts covered in previous years, and scan the curriculum to understand how the interdisciplinary challenges they face—whether in studying cancer, climate change, or energy—are addressed in other disciplines. Faculty likewise use OCW to better situate their courses in the curriculum with respect to the course content of their peers, both within departments and across them.

Open Education Consortium

Part of the original mission of the OCW project—and a key goal of OCW’s original funders, the Hewlett and Mellon foundations—was to encourage other institutions to follow MIT’s lead in openly sharing course materials. In 2004 OCW began reaching out to other institutions and organizing international conferences on OCW and open sharing. With a few other institutions, MIT launched a prototype of the OCW Consortium in 2005. The original goals were to

  • extend the reach and impact of OpenCourseWare by encouraging the adoption and adaptation of open educational materials around the world,
  • foster the development of additional OCW projects, and
  • ensure the long-term sustainability of OCW projects by collectively identifying ways to improve effectiveness and reduce costs.

In 2008 the Consortium was established as an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit tax-exempt organization. Later, it broadened its scope to include not only OpenCourseWare organizations, but other types of open education projects as well, becoming the Open Education Consortium ( Today there are 266 OE Consortium institutions representing 48 countries around the world.

Future of OCW

Since the announcement of OCW 15 years ago, much has changed in the world of education, particularly in the areas of digital teaching and learning tools and online access to educational opportunities and resources. As both a dynamic, publicly accessible repository of MIT’s teaching materials and a reflection of MIT’s pedagogical practices, OpenCourseWare plays a central role in placing MIT at the forefront of the open education movement.

As teaching approaches at MIT change, OCW will document and disseminate them, maintaining MIT’s position as a global educational innovator and helping to fulfill its broader mission to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world.

OCW recently published several MIT courses that have implemented digital learning and new research-based teaching practices to “flip the classroom” and to provide students with interactive online assessments, simulations and visualizations, and access to global classrooms. We anticipate that more OCW courses will include these elements and that OCW Educator will provide a good platform for faculty to share the changes they are making to their classes with colleagues at MIT and around the world.

In these and so many other ways, OCW will continue to advance its mission as it responds to the changes already visible in the future of educational delivery.


1 OCW refers to both the online offerings and the staffed program.

2 Selected awards: InfoWorld 100: Outstanding Content Management System (2003); Computerworld Laureate: Top Education and Academia IT Implementation (2004); Massachusetts Interactive Media Conference: Best User Experience overall, Best Educational Website New England (2004); Tech Museum Award: Microsoft Education Award Laureate (2005); American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Science Magazine: Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE) (2005); Time Magazine: 50 Best Websites of 2010; Qatar Foundation: World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) Award (2011); American Library Association: Best Free Reference Web Site (2012).

3 From MIT News, “MIT OpenCourseWare—Faculty Views,” April 4, 2001.

4 Here and throughout, unless otherwise indicated, OCW web addresses preceded by a slash begin with

5 ESP has been helping high school students since 1957, focusing on subjects that reflect MIT’s strengths in STEM topics. See

6 MIT was among the first major institutions to adopt a Creative Commons license.

7Prepared by a committee of OCW practitioners from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, MIT, Notre Dame, Tufts, Yale, and the University of Michigan, and published in October 2009 by the American University Center for Social Media. Online at OCW-Oct29.pdf.

About the Author:Cecilia d’Oliveira is associate dean of digital learning at MIT. Jeff Lazarus is a contributing writer.