Online world opens up elite colleges to all

Gilbert Strang is a quiet man with a rare talent: helping others understand linear algebra. He’s written a half-dozen popular college textbooks, and for years a few hundred students at the elite Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been privileged to take his course.

Recently, with the growth of computer science, demand to understand linear algebra has surged. But so has the number of students Strang can teach.

An MIT initiative called OpenCourseWare makes virtually all the school’s courses available online for free — lecture notes, readings, tests and often video lectures. Strang’s Math 18.06 course is among the most popular, with visitors downloading his lectures more than 1.3 million times since June alone.


The world’s top universities have come late to the world of online education, but they’re arriving at last, creating an all-you-can-eat online buffet of information.

And, mostly, they are giving it away.

MIT’s initiative is the largest, but the trend is spreading. More than 100 universities worldwide, including Johns Hopkins, Tufts and Notre Dame, have joined MIT in a consortium of schools promoting their own open courseware. You no longer need a Princeton ID to hear the prominent guests who speak regularly on campus, just an Internet connection. Recently, Yale announced it would make material from seven popular courses available online, with 30 more to follow.

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