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Cap, Gown, Mouse

The number of people seeking higher education worldwide has grown exponentially in recent years, rising from 13 million in 1960 to 65 million in 1991. It’s projected to hit 130 million by 2010. The developing world is no exception. China, for instance, currently sends 6 percent of its students to tertiary education and hopes to ...

The number of people seeking higher education worldwide has grown exponentially in recent years, rising from 13 million in 1960 to 65 million in 1991. It’s projected to hit 130 million by 2010. The developing world is no exception. China, for instance, currently sends 6 percent of its students to tertiary education and hopes to increase that figure to 15 percent by 2010.

Demand is rising faster than developing nations can build universities. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) believes the Internet can help. Its OpenCourseWare (OCW) pilot program went online last September at ocw.mit.edu. Modeled on open-source computer programs, OCW will eventually post all of MIT’s course offerings online — including class notes, syllabi, and exams — but will not confer degrees. MIT calls OCW “a model for university dissemination of knowledge in the Internet age.”

The idea is winning support in the education community. “The [online education] business is going to be dead by 2005,” predicts Allan Goodman, president of the New York-based Institute of International Education. “If you can get all of MIT online for free, why pay for anything else?”

Not everyone is convinced. Other universities still see a profitable, untapped market. Oxford, Yale, and Stanford universities operate http://www.allearn.com, a fee-for-service site that serves students in 30 countries and offers courses designed by academic heavyweights, like Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Jack Rakove. Columbia University runs www.fathom.com, a site that has pulled in a wide range of partners, including the London School of Economics and Political Science. It offers hundreds of courses in every department from astronomy to veterinary science. Fathom CEO Ann Kirschner compares the MIT model to browsing a bookstore — great for casual interest, but not serious study. “If you want a course with serious interactive engagement with faculty,” she says, “you’ll pay for it.”

It’s too early to tell what impact online education sites are having in the developing world. And with the sluggish rate of Internet penetration in poorer countries, narrowing the education divide may ultimately depend on narrowing the digital divide.

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