Tuesday, December 02, 2003

OpenCourseWare Revisited

I've spoken before about MIT's OpenCourseWare project, which placed the lectures, assignments, and exams of 500 courses online. I've been delighted by the... openness, I guess, of their gesture - I believe that Good Things come from the free flow of information. (If nothing else, it is simple to show that a restricted flow of information is harmful... look at they way the early Christians solidified their political control by ensuring that only priests knew how to read). MIT seems to be a fount of innovation, so it seemed fitting that this bold step (most academics are notoriously stingy with information) would be undertaken there.

You would think that an enterprise devoted to the 'open source' ideology might use open source tools to promote their venture... but, as with most things, you'd be WRONG. NO COOKIE FOR YOU. Recently Philip Greenspun had some interesting insight into the amount of 'innovation' involved in MIT's project. Greenspun is teaching 'Software Engineering for Internet Applications', a course whose goal he states as "The bottom line: we want one someone who has finished this course to be able to build amazon.com, eBay, or photo.net by him or herself." Apparently the folks from OpenCourseWare gave a lecture to Greenspun's class, from which he shares the following information:

The more sophisticated portion of ocw.mit.edu is a 100 percent Microsoft show. A student asks the speakers why they chose Microsoft Content Management Server, expecting to hear a story about careful in-house technical evaluation done by people sort of like them. The answer: "We read a Gartner Group report that said the Microsoft system was the simplest to use among the commercial vendors and that open-source toolkits weren't worth considering."

Students began to wake up.

A PowerPoint slide contained the magic word "Delhi". It turns out that most of the content editing and all of the programming work for OpenCourseware was done in India, either by Sapient, MIT's main contractor for the project, or by a handful of Microsoft India employees who helped set up the Content Management Server.

Thus did students who are within months of graduating with their $160,000 computer science degrees learn how modern information systems are actually built, even by institutions that earn much of their revenue from educating American software developers.

I've been basically devastated by the immense gap between what I studied so hard to learn in school (bachelors degree in electrical engineering) and what I actually did in the workplace (mostly fill out paperwork and fight closed-minded empire-building fucktard managers for whom innovation was antimatter). I'm saddened to see that MIT also suffers from the lack of applicability in their curriculum, but I am glad to see that at least one professor there understands the problem.