Thursday, 22 March 2007

MIT to make all university courses free to everyone

MIT has announced that all 1,800 of its courses will be made completely free to anyone to download. If you ever wanted to know anything about anything, especially technical stuff, this is a great opportunity to find out. All 1,800 courses are available here including audio and video copies of lectures, as well as written text. Just load it up to an MP3 player, or burn it to a CD, and listen while you go to work. Yale will be starting a similar program in a few months.

There is a great conflict in cultural, economic, and technological paradigms right now between closed-source systems and open-source system. Closed-source systems involve a limited, centralized, usually hierarchical group of people that make decisions in private. They produce a product or service that is consumed, and critically, the consumer has very little knowledge or control over how that product/service is made or used. Examples include Microsoft’s software, big-label music, and arguably Roman Catholicism. All fashion their products privately, and then produce it to the consumer with heavy restrictions on how it can be used/understood. Tinkering, copying, or questioning are not encouraged, and are often actively suppressed. In each there are producers and receivers, and little interaction between them.

Open-source systems, made viable through new technology, allow the entire public to participate in learning and making decisions. Open-source systems are decentralized, transparent and democratic. Examples include Wikipedia, Google, Mozilla, YouTube, blogs (like this one), free online classes, and arguably Quakerism. Tinkering, questioning, and interactive participation are encouraged. Open-source software systems, like Mozilla, are nearly always more secure than closed ones, like Internet Explorer. Mozilla’s code is open for anyone to see, and so thousands of volunteers have tested its weaknesses and contributed to it to make it stronger. Internet Explorer, on the other hand, relies on secrecy instead of actual strength for security, and is highly vulnerable because of this. In a matter of about two years, Wikipedia went from obscurity to becoming the world’s most cited reference source. Written entirely by volunteers, this open-source encyclopedia boasts 1,699,795 articles (in English; many more articles are in additional languages), and gains hundreds more every day, making it the largest and most comprehensive encyclopedia in the world. A recent study found its science articles were just as accurate as those of Encylopedia Brittanica. There are many parallels with natural selection here: sheltered, homogenous entities will wither away once their protection is removed; robust, transparent, heterogeneous entities will thrive.

Obviously, both closed and open source systems are necessary and both will always be around. But open-source will continue to become more and more dominant. The journey to that point may be quite long and bumpy as ideas of intellectual property are rethought and transformed, but open-source systems will almost always outcompete closed systems given enough time. MIT's decision to make their entire selection of classes available as free to everyone is a great start in applying the value in open-source system, and will surely inspire many to take advantage of it.

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