Monday, June 11, 2007

The awesome, benign influence of MIT

If that's what being a Massachusetts liberal means, let's have more of it!

MIT has always been respected as an institution of excellence in the teaching of technology. Gaining admission into its hallowed portals has never been easy. But the Massachusetts Institute of Technology can hardly be called elitist.

Three of the things MIT has done in recent times have been monumental gestures towards spreading knowledge beyond the privileged classes.

Exhibit 1: In 2002, MIT began to make its coveted course material freely available online, putting it within reach of anyone with an Internet connection and a willingness to learn. By the end of 2007, it is estimated that 1800 courses across 35 subject areas will be available. More importantly, MIT has created a trend in the OCW (OpenCourseWare) area, with more than a hundred other Universities around the world creating similar sites with online content to help independent learners.

Exhibit 2: Nicholas Negroponte of MIT's Media Lab has become world-famous for his sponsorship of the One Laptop Per Child program, an ambitious education scheme designed to bring computing power (in the form of $100 laptops) to millions of schoolchildren in developing countries. While the outcome of that project itself is far from certain today (thanks in part to the desire of parties not involved in it to sabotage it), I believe OLPC will (directly or indirectly) have far-reaching effects on the economics of computing, making computer hardware an order of magnitude more affordable and sparking off a fresh wave of IT innovation.

Exhibit 3: In May this year, MIT's Media Lab (yes the same outfit that Negroponte hails from) released Scratch, a simple, intuitive, visual programming language for kids. Learning computer programming has never been so easy or fun. Even adults will be hooked by its power and ease of learning. Nominally Open Source (but currently only accepting in-house contributions), Scratch promises to bring Computer Science concepts from University to primary school. As a programmer myself, I'm amazed to see object-oriented, event-driven systems presented so intuitively. It took me many painful months to learn OO concepts, but to teenage Scratch programmers, it's the most natural way to think about programming.

Hats off to MIT. And to conservative critics who look down on Massachusetts as a hotbed of liberalism, the guys at MIT aren't communists. Making education widely accessible isn't communism. It's how market capitalism is seeded.