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New Year's Resolution -- Take Astronomy Courses at MIT... For Free

01/02/2008 05:03PM

New Year's Resolution -- Take Astronomy Courses at MIT... For Free
MIT's initiative to openly publish course content and make it available for free on the internet, appropriately named the "OpenCourseWare" (OCW)Program, celebrated a major milestone this past month. Core teaching materials--including syllabi, lecture notes, assignments, and exams from virtually all MIT courses -- 1,800 in total -- are now available online. The OCW site includes voluntary contributions from 90 percent of faculty and more than 2,600 members of the MIT community.

"OCW demonstrates MIT's commitment to openness and to improving education on a global level," MIT President Susan Hockfield said of the achievement. "The site embodies the generosity and dedication of our faculty."

First announced in 2001, OpenCourseWare has grown from a 50-course pilot to a site that includes virtually the entire MIT undergraduate and graduate curriculum. Materials are published under an open license that encourages reuse, redistribution, and modification for noncommercial purposes.

MIT Associate Dean of Engineering Dick Yue chaired the committee that first proposed OCW. "The idea is simple," he said in a recent interview: "just to publish our teaching material, our course content online and make it widely available to everyone who can use it, for free."

An estimated 35 million individuals have accessed OCW materials since its launch, 60 percent of them from outside the United States. Nearly 600 courses have been translated into languages including Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, and Thai. MIT has also provided more than 120 local copies of the site to universities in bandwidth-constrained regions such as sub-Saharan Africa.

OpenCourseWare also sparked a global movement that now includes more than 160 universities from around the world that together have published an estimated 5,000 courses. Along with leading universities from the United States, China, Japan, and Spain, the OpenCourseWare Consortium now includes schools from Africa, Australia, Europe, Latin America and Southeast Asia.

OpenCourseWare was proposed by a committee studying lifelong learning in the summer of 2000, and support for the program has been provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Ab Initio Corporation.

Yue said the committee had hoped the project would have broad impact, but that the use of the OCW site and the spread of the movement have far exceeded initial expectations.

"The dream was that OpenCourseWare would be a broad-based movement that would impact knowledge, information and education worldwide," Yue said. "I think it's coming to fruition even as we speak."

"We're really happy about what's happening," said Harold Abelson, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, who has been working with OCW since the beginning.

"We're getting traffic from virtually every country on earth. From a very simple but profound idea, OCW has grown into a global movement" now used daily by thousands of people worldwide, according to Jon Paul Potts, communications manager for OCW.

One educator from Indonesia summed it up: "I was surprised that such a renowned university as MIT would freely give access to almost all of its educational information to the world," said Triatno Harjoko, an architecture professor at the University of Indonesia in Depok.

"Critical thinking and creativity demand the liberalization of learning and information," he said. "But I also believe that it's not simply the information that's valuable, but also the glimpse it offers into how MIT has structured its teaching and research to become such a prestigious institution."

Here's a sampling of the MIT courses in Astronomy that are available for free:

8.282J/12.402J Introduction to Astronomy

Introduction to Astronomy provides a quantitative introduction to the physics of the solar system, stars, the interstellar medium, the galaxy, and the universe, as determined from a variety of astronomical observations and models.

12.409 Hands-On Astronomy: Observing Stars and Planets

This class introduces the student to the use of small telescopes, either for formal research or as a hobby. This course covers background for and techniques of visual observation, electronic imaging, and spectroscopy of the Moon, planets, satellites, stars, and brighter deep-space objects.

12.400 The Solar System

This is an introduction to the study of the solar system with emphasis on the latest spacecraft results. The subject covers basic principles rather than detailed mathematical and physical models. Topics include: an overview of the solar system, planetary orbits, rings, planetary formation, meteorites, asteroids, comets, planetary surfaces and cratering, planetary interiors, planetary atmospheres, and life in the solar system.

8.224 Exploring Black Holes: General Relativity & Astrophysics

Study of physical effects in the vicinity of a black hole as a basis for understanding general relativity, astrophysics, and elements of cosmology. Extension to current developments in theory and observation. Energy and momentum in flat spacetime; the metric; curvature of spacetime near rotating and nonrotating centers of attraction; trajectories and orbits of particles and light; elementary models of the Cosmos.

8.286 The Early Universe

The Early Universe provides an introduction to modern cosmology. The first half deals with the development of the big-bang theory from 1915 to 1980, and latter half with recent impact of particle theory.

8.284 Modern Astrophysics

This course explores the applications of physics (Newtonian, statistical, and quantum mechanics) to fundamental processes that occur in celestial objects. The list of topics includes Main-sequence Stars, Collapsed Stars (White Dwarfs, Neutron Stars, and Black Holes), Pulsars, Supernovae, the Interstellar Medium, Galaxies, Active Galaxies, Quasars, and Cosmology. Observational data is also discussed.

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