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Open Courseware: Self-Study and Space

I’m a great believer in the open courseware concept that MIT has done so much to promote. The idea is to do away with the password-protected gatekeeper function that so many university and college Web sites impose, opening access to those course materials an instructor chooses to put online. Some 1800 courses in 33 different disciplines have made their way to the Web via MIT’s gateway, their offerings ranging from audio of lectures, lecture notes and exams to PDFs and video files. It’s a pleasure to see that Bruce Irving is tracking MIT’s venture on his Music of the Spheres site, a post I’ve chosen to highlight from this week’s Carnival of Space collection.

Bruce notes one recent addition to the MIT catalog, a course called Space Systems Engineering that looks at design challenges in both ground and space-based telescopes, ultimately attempting to choose the top-rated architectures for a lunar telescope facility. But the MIT offerings are wide ranging. I’m seeing courses on aerospace engineering, structural mechanics, aerodynamics, space propulsion, satellite engineering, and one that caught Bruce’s eye as well, a course called Engineering Apollo: The Moon Project as a Complex System, with guest lectures by engineers who participated in Apollo.

What’s unusual to me isn’t MIT’s bold attempt to make university resources available throughout the globe, but the fact that open courseware hasn’t become more widespread. Against the objection that it diminishes the likelihood that a student will apply to a given school, its courses being available online, I can only state the obvious: No degree program flows from open courseware, nor does the online experience in any way equal the rich and interactive environment to be found on the actual campus. Open courseware does not try to replace traditional education, but to augment it by making the fruits of intellectual inquiry more widely available.

Making that point is simple once you’ve gone through some of MIT’s courses, seeing that some are far more complete than others in terms of materials. But what an exceptional resource for those trying to get a handle on how a subject is structured in a university environment, its basic premises and strategies, and the background materials by which to approach it. I think, too, of how many teachers in more remote environments may find stimulus here to revise and expand their current offerings through online suggestions. Bravo MIT, and here’s to open courseware spreading to other great universities.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Paul Titze September 6, 2008, 21:23

    Brilliant idea, love it. Instead of buying expensive physics books or having to goto my university library, just download the PDF lectures on an ebook reader for eg to brushup on some areas a bit rusty while the seagulls are craping on deck ;-) wish all unis did the same thing. Another very useful site is Living Reviews:


    Cheers, Paul.

  • David September 7, 2008, 3:43

    People are also putting course lectures on youtube. For example, Leonard Susskind of Stanford is putting on-line his physics lectures. He is in the process of making available six quarters (about four semesters) of lectures which he calls the “theoretical minimum” of what every physicist should know. The required background looks to be only a knowledge of first years physics and calculus.

  • Michael Spencer September 7, 2008, 7:57

    Thanks for reminding me about this. I’ve loved classics since I was a kid, and this drove me to an undergraduate degree in Latin and Greek; the heart still palpitates when seeing course work on the ancient Greek city! Much to learn here, and a terrific resource.

  • Administrator September 7, 2008, 14:09

    Michael, exactly so (and your enthusiasm for Latin and Greek as an undergrad resonates with me, as I recall my own days of wrestling with doing a classics major or going into medieval English — the latter won out). I love the sheer range of coursework available via the MIT initiative, as most readers will.

  • webjones September 7, 2008, 21:59

    I’m a big fan of MIT’s initiative with open courseware. I’m trying to keep up the discipline required to learn Chinese using the materials provided.

    I hesitate to throw a negative vibe into this thread, but one reason that there are not more open courseware initiatives might be because Universities are primarily a business with the usual business goal of making as much money as possible. Offering up courseware for free, even though it is self-guided and does not lead to any kind of degree or certification for the student, might seem counter-intuitive to most of the folks who run Universities.

  • John Hunt September 8, 2008, 11:13

    There is a series of YouTube videos by Midnight Tutor which teaches 11 classes on different aspects of rocket science. It gives me the idea that perhaps one could develop an informal certification system where people could become members of an association (or members with some type of privileges) by completing some on-line exams which demonstrates that they know enough about the science of interstellar travel. If one is not formally trained in these areas one could, none-the-less become a member by passing the exams. In order to pass them one could do self-study using links to on-line resources which the association would compile.


    Rocket Science 101: History of Rocketry Part 1
    Rocket Science 101: History of Rocketry Part 2
    Rocket Science 101: Physics of Rockets
    Rocket Science 101: Engineering of Rockets
    Rocket Science 101: Rocket Fuels, Units of Measure
    Rocket Science 101: Max Q and How to Get to Orbit
    Rocket Science 201: Types of Orbits and Their Uses
    Rocket Science 201: Launch Operations
    Rocket Science 201: Orbital Mechanics
    Rocket Science 301: Radical Concepts in Propulsion; Man
    Rocket Science 301: Real Reason Shuttle Challenger Blew Up

  • ljk March 13, 2009, 13:35

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) has helped put out a
    collection of science fiction stories where the astronomical science
    is either accurate or at least based in real science.

    Titled Diamonds in the Sky, the entire collection may be read online


    I have not had a chance to read any of the works yet, but the mere
    fact that they aimed to be scientifically accurate is a wonder in itself.

  • ljk September 25, 2009, 12:52

    The Revolution in Astronomy Education: Data Science for the Masses

    Authors: Kirk D. Borne (1), Suzanne Jacoby (2), K. Carney (3), A. Connolly (4), T. Eastman (5), M. J. Raddick (6), J. A. Tyson (7), J. Wallin (1) ((1) George Mason University, (2) LSST Corporation, (3) Adler Planetarium, (4) U. Washington, (5) Wyle Information Systems, (6) JHU/SDSS, (7) UC Davis)

    (Submitted on 22 Sep 2009)

    Abstract: As our capacity to study ever-expanding domains of our science has increased (including the time domain, non-electromagnetic phenomena, magnetized plasmas, and numerous sky surveys in multiple wavebands with broad spatial coverage and unprecedented depths), so have the horizons of our understanding of the Universe been similarly expanding.

    This expansion is coupled to the exponential data deluge from multiple sky surveys, which have grown from gigabytes into terabytes during the past decade, and will grow from terabytes into Petabytes (even hundreds of Petabytes) in the next decade. With this increased vastness of information, there is a growing gap between our awareness of that information and our understanding of it.

    Training the next generation in the fine art of deriving intelligent understanding from data is needed for the success of sciences, communities, projects, agencies, businesses, and economies. This is true for both specialists (scientists) and non-specialists (everyone else: the public, educators and students, workforce).

    Specialists must learn and apply new data science research techniques in order to advance our understanding of the Universe. Non-specialists require information literacy skills as productive members of the 21st century workforce, integrating foundational skills for lifelong learning in a world increasingly dominated by data.

    We address the impact of the emerging discipline of data science on astronomy education within two contexts: formal education and lifelong learners.

    Comments: 12 pages total: 1 cover page, 1 page of co-signers, plus 10 pages, State of the Profession Position Paper submitted to the Astro2010 Decadal Survey (March 2009)

    Subjects: Instrumentation and Methods for Astrophysics (astro-ph.IM)

    Cite as: arXiv:0909.3895v1 [astro-ph.IM]

    Submission history

    From: Kirk D. Borne [view email]

    [v1] Tue, 22 Sep 2009 02:55:14 GMT (1121kb,X)