Getting into college might be tougher today than it used to be–but an increasing number of top schools are now offering courses free of charge online. What’s more, some program administrators report giving away course content actually is having a positive impact on student recruitment.

Following the lead of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and other highly competitive schools, more institutions are posting online everything from lecture notes to sample tests, and even making audio and video files of actual lectures publicly available. The sites attract anywhere from thousands to more than one million unique visitors each month.

The moves–which differ from the distance-education courses that many schools offer for credit and charge for–come as colleges and universities say they want to democratize education, making the best resources available to more people. But the schools also hope such efforts lead to more interest from potential applicants and inspire alumni in far-flung locales to make a donation.

MIT’s pioneering “OpenCourseWare” program, which was launched in 2003, posts the syllabus and class notes for more than 1,500 courses online for anyone who wants them. By this November, MIT aims to publish materials from virtually all 1,800 of its courses across all its schools.

Starting last fall, the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., began offering eight courses online, from Introduction to Philosophy to African-American History, and including everything from class plans and links to required readings, to lecture notes and homework assignments. The school aims to increase the number of classes offered online to 30 courses over the next two years.

Yale University, meanwhile, has announced it will produce digital videos of undergraduate lecture classes and make them available free of charge to the public. This academic year, it is recording seven classes–from Introduction to the Old Testament to Fundamentals of Physics–to be posted online this fall.

Some smaller liberal-arts schools are following suit. Bryn Mawr College, a women’s school in Pennsylvania, is in the process of selecting course materials to post online, free to the public, beginning this summer. It plans to include classes ranging from psychology and physics to one on the history of Philadelphia.

Some schools that follow the MIT model are focused on making available as many course materials as possible, including class plans, lecture notes, lists of reading materials, and even homework. Other schools, including the University of California, Berkeley, are simply making lectures available through audio and video files.

In MIT’s Introduction to Modeling and Simulation, a science and engineering class, web surfers can browse through assignments and sample quizzes, as well as suggested project ideas. As with other MIT courses, the syllabus is posted online, so you can see the structure of the course and what text and other reading materials are used–but only some lecture notes are available.

Some MIT online courses are even more comprehensive. All of the lectures for legendary professor Walter Lewin’s Physics I, II, and III courses are on video, as well as detailed lecture notes, assignments, and practice exams.

Lewin says he receives eMail messages every day from the general public and tries to answer all of them. And while a few of them can be “annoying” when they start to dispute his reply, he says the eMails of appreciation from the public–students and adults who say they grew to love physics through the lectures–make it all worthwhile. “Some of them make me cry,” he says.

Robert Croghan, a Canadian entrepreneur living on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, says he has used some of the MIT courses as guidance for an alternative-energy project he is working on. Croghan says he read the lectures for courses on international development and entrepreneurial finance for extra guidance. “They allowed me to take my street smarts and apply it with the terminology from a formal education,” he says. In White House, Tenn., Army First Lt. Ronnie E. Matthews Jr. took Notre Dame’s Foundations of Theology course online. Matthews has been doing “a lot of soul searching,” he says, which is why he was drawn to the course. He says he spends about an hour a day reading the Bible by following the class plans and lecture notes and doing the homework assignments listed by Prof. Gary Anderson. “It’s challenging,” he says. On most nights, he dives into his studies after he puts his baby to bed.

The trend of offering free online coursework was accelerated when Apple Inc. launched its free iTunes U hosting service a year ago to encourage universities to make audio and video files of lectures and other course materials downloadable.

Apple doesn’t charge schools to use its platform, saying that it’s advantageous for the company to open its technology to young users using it for school. “It allows people to think about an iPod in a different way” other than just listening to music, says Eddy Cue, vice president of iTunes.

Many of the schools that offer free online coursework are supported through grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which says it hopes to promote “open educational resources.” Hewlett so far has given more than $68 million to universities and nonprofits to post free online course materials.

“Knowledge is a public good, and a public good should be freely shared,” says Catherine Casserly, program officer for education at the Menlo Park, Calif., foundation. “Through the contributions of many, we can revolutionize teaching and learning.”

That mission–democratizing education–also appeals to universities. But schools aren’t interested only in the public good: School leaders say that offering materials online can draw in potential applicants curious about what an actual course looks like.

An MIT survey of users showed that about a third of freshmen who were aware of the OpenCourseWare site before attending the university said it made a significant impact on their decision to enroll.

University officials say they don’t worry about losing applicants by giving away materials online.

“From Yale’s point of view, there still is nothing more important than direct interaction between students and teachers,” says Diana E.E. Kleiner, an art history professor and director of the Yale project. “Putting a selection of our courses online [free of charge] doesn’t change that.”

Educators, students, and others can find information about universities that make their course content available free of charge online by visiting the web site of the OpenCourseWare Consortium. The site is a collaboration of more than 100 higher-education institutions and associated organizations from around the world, including MIT.

Links:

MIT’s OpenCourseWare project
http://ocw.mit.edu/index.html

Apple’s iTunes U
http://www.apple.com/education/solutions/itunes_u

William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
http://www.hewlett.org/Default.htm

OpenCourseWare Consortium
http://ocwconsortium.org/index.html

“Schools use technology to share course content” (eSN Online, September 2006)
http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showstory.cfm?ArticleID=6556

“Students plug in, enroll in ‘iTunes U'” (eSN Online, January 2006)
http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showstory.cfm?ArticleID=6071