A Decision That Was Deceptively Easy: Charles M. Vest and OCW

Photo of Chuck Vest painting with students sitting and walking nearby.

“With vision, courage, integrity and heart, Charles Marstiller Vest, MIT’s 15th President (1990-2004), launched a revolution in open education and established MIT as a national leader in equity and opportunity.” (From the sign on this portrait of Charles M. Vest painted by Jon R. Friedman, hanging in MIT’s Stata Center.)

“That is brilliant,” said MIT President Charles Vest when Professor Dick Yue told him of the Lifelong Learning Committee’s recommendation to create MIT OpenCourseWare back in 2000. “The idea is simple,” Yue said, “to publish all of our course materials online and make them widely available to everyone.”

In recent months there have been many tributes and remembrances of Charles Vest, who passed away earlier this year. One of the best of these appeared in the Sept / Oct 2014 MIT Faculty Newsletter. In it, Robert J. Birgeneau, who was Dean of Science when Vest was President, recalls the many remarkable achievements that Vest oversaw while at MIT: how he worked to improve access to higher education for underrepresented minorities, modernized the management of MIT, investigated gender discrimination experienced by MIT faculty, and championed new MIT research centers in neuroscience. The creation of OCW was just one of many bold initiatives that took shape under Vest’s stewardship.

But what led Vest to see the brilliance inherent in the concept of OCW? At the time, private companies and institutions of learning were focused on trying to make money by putting course materials up on the Internet. Yet Vest saw certain wisdom in giving MIT’s teaching materials away to the entire world for free. How could he think such a thing?

Vest explained this one night in 2011 when speaking on a panel assembled to celebrate the 10th anniversary of OCW (Vest speaks from 5:41 to 17:10). Vest knew from his experience as an undergraduate engineering student at West Virginia University and as a graduate student at the University of Michigan that MIT faculty had transformed the teaching of engineering in the 1950s and 1960s by visiting other colleges and sharing with their faculty MIT’s science-based approach to engineering education. MIT faculty were creating new ways of teaching, writing up notes that became textbooks, creating new lab experiments for teaching, and they willingly shared these materials with interested instructors around the US.

To Charles Vest, MIT OpenCourseWare would be carrying on this same work, just on a grander scale, using technology to boost its impact. And so it was through a deep understanding of the past that Charles Vest saw a way to the future.

Few people imagined at the time that the materials OCW would publish on its website would appeal to millions of students and self-learners around the world. Today, these people make up about 85–90% of the visitors who come to OCW’s site each month. Teachers constitute only about 8–9%.

Yet the teachers who use OCW’s materials in their classrooms have an outsized importance because they share these materials directly or indirectly with their many students, year after year.

In recognition of this fact, OCW launched its OCW Educator initiative this year, seeking to share the “how” and the “why” of MIT instruction as well as the “what.”

We like to think Charles Vest would approve.

— Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

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