With both private and public schools facing budget issues in tough economic times, it’s no surprise perhaps to hear a university employee say that the school is re-evaluating distance learning opportunities. But when an MIT employee made a statement to that effect at the OECD’s Institutional Management in Higher Education earlier last month, some media outlets erroneously reported it as an indication that MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) was considering implementing a paywall.

“That is simply not under consideration,” says Steve Carson, MIT OpenCourseWare’s External Relations Director. After all, there are some 250 sites that mirror MIT OpenCourseWare and over 10 million copies of course packages have been downloaded. The information is already out there. And the mission of the program remains the same: “open sharing of MIT teaching materials with educators, students, and self-learners around the world.”

Open Access to Educational Materials

Launched in 2002, the MIT site provides open access to the core academic content – syllabi, lecture notes, problem sets and solutions, exams, reading lists, and even a selection of video lectures – from more than MIT 2,000 courses, presenting almost the school’s entire curriculum.

Initially aimed at collaboration within academia, the materials have been accessed by over 70 million visitors from all over the world, 43% of whom are “independent learners,” that is those who aren’t educators or enrolled students.

Who Pays for “Information for Public Good”?

Although there is no paywall in store for the program, Carson does say that MIT OCW has to be mindful of budgetary issues. The program cost $3.7 million to run last year. The site now features a prominent “Donate Now” button. Carson says that small donations – around the $50 level – comprised about $220,000 in the program’s revenues last year, and the program hopes to hit $500,000 this fiscal year.

Likening MIT OpenCourseWare to the “information for public good” services of NPR and PBS, Carson says that the program will seek funding from both charitable organizations, as well as corporate underwriters. Currently the program is considering advertising on the website, something Carson thinks will appeal to organizations who want to be in front of a global audience of well-educated people.

As Carson notes, there are many pieces in building a sustainable OpenCourseWare ecosystem – developing learning activities around the courseware and rethinking how accreditation and certification work, for example – so funding the programs that put academic materials online is only a part of that.