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Putting a university's full range of educational material on the web is an exercise in wising up rather than dumbing down

On 4 April, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced that it was going to put its entire course on the web for free at www. mit. edu.Well actually, it said nearly all, and it is over a 10-year timeframe, but it is no less remarkable for that. Having a quick browse of the site as it stands at the moment is a nice taster for what to expect, and it already puts most UK university websites to shame.No banner adverts, no links to student union joke books, no badly designed pages of endless text.

The idea behind the institute's OpenCourseWare (MIT OCW) is the 'dissemination of knowledge in the Internet age'. In a refreshingly bold statement it notes that 'the most fundamental cornerstone of the learning process at MIT is the interaction between faculty and students in the classroom, and among students themselves on campus', thereby challenging some of the more crude attempts at 'passive' learning which passes for education these days.

This is not a correspondence course but a fully stocked and accessible library resource. It still wants people to come to its college; the goal, as it makes plain, is to provide the content that supports an education. The resource is intended to be 'a common repository of information and a channel of intellectual activity that would stimulate educational innovation and cross-disciplinary educational ventures'.

The current site comprises a changing gallery of images, with links to all the key information you would need to obtain a reasonably full appraisal of the department. Not all coursework is up and running yet, but you can see the potential of the finished site, and links are available.

One of MIT's more developed projects is ArchNet, for those with a special interest in Islamic architecture and architecture of the developing world. Enter the site at archnet. org and submit your details. By logging on with secure details you enter a virtual community of people with similar interests. Here you can source specific information and show your work to others for comment and criticism.

ArchNet is dedicated to making planning and architectural information accessible to 'scholars and design professionals'.

The site is an ongoing project and the institute hopes eventually to extend its fully searchable digital library, which already includes photographs and manuscripts, full book texts, architectural data (in CAD and GIS), sites promoting 'scholarly exchange' and profiles of academic projects, courses and job opportunities.

Headline stories give a sneak preview of what's on offer. Click on Herman Hertzberger and Fumihiko Maki to hear their speeches (using RealPlayer 8). Click on 'The Architecture of Cairo' or 'Religious Architecture and Islamic Cultures' and you go straight into the syllabus schedule for each. Each page contains detailed readable course notes with clear thumbnail images providing a straightforward and informative presentation. Although the pictures are not really of reproducible quality, the speed of upload is good and pages turn sufficiently quickly to maintain interest. For anyone with a research interest in the subject, this is an invaluable and immediate source of information.

Professor Charles Vest, president of the institute, says: 'OpenCourseWare looks counter-intuitive in a marketdriven world. It goes against the grain of current material values. But it really is consistent with what I believe is the best about MIT. It is innovative. It expresses our belief in the way education can be advanced - by constantly widening access to information and by inspiring others to participate.'

The next stage is to develop this pilot programme over two years in order to coordinate the design and implementation of the software and support services as well as operational protocols. By the end of two years, it is expected that more than 500 courses will be fully available and that 2,000 courses will be online in 10 years.

Professor Vest is not worried about enrolment being detrimentally affected, believing instead that more people will want to come to the institute once they see the range and quality of educational facilities on offer.

Commenting on the aspirations behind the project, he says: 'We would be delighted if, over time, we have a world wide web of knowledge that raises the quality of learning - and ultimately the quality of life - around the globe'.

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