Gilbert Strang is a quiet man with a rare talent: helping others understand linear algebra. He's written a half-dozen popular college textbooks, and for years a few hundred students at the elite Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been privileged to take his course.
Recently, with the growth of computer science, demand to understand linear algebra has surged. But so has the number of students Strang can teach.
An MIT initiative called "OpenCourseWare" makes virtually all the school's courses available online for free — lecture notes, readings, tests and often video lectures. Strang's Math 18.06 course is among the most popular, with visitors downloading his lectures more than 1.3 million times since June alone.
Strang's classroom is the world.
In his Istanbul dormitory, Kemal Burcak Kaplan, an undergraduate at Bogazici University, downloads Strang's lectures to try to boost his grade in a class there. Outside Calcutta, graduate student Sriram Chandrasekaran uses them to brush up on matrices for his engineering courses at the elite Indian Institute of Technology.
Many "students" are college teachers themselves, like Sheraz Ali Khan at a small engineering institute in Peshawar, Pakistan, and Noorali Jiwaji, at the Open University of Tanzania. They use Strang and other MIT professors as guides in designing their own classes, and direct students to MIT's courses for help.
Others are closer to MIT's Cambridge, Mass., campus. Some are MIT students and alumni, while others have no connection at all — like Gus Whelan, a retiree on nearby Cape Cod, and Dustin Darcy, a 27-year-old video game programmer in Los Angeles who uses linear algebra regularly in his work.
"Rather than going through my old, dusty books," Darcy said, "I thought I might as well go through it from the top and see if I learn something new."
There has never been a more exciting time for the intellectually curious.
The world's top universities have come late to the world of online education, but they're arriving at last, creating an all-you-can eat online buffet of information.
And mostly, they are giving it away.
MIT's initiative is the largest, but the trend is spreading. More than 100 universities worldwide, including Johns Hopkins, Tufts and Notre Dame, have joined MIT in a consortium of schools promoting their own open courseware. You no longer need a Princeton ID to hear the prominent guests who speak regularly on campus, just an Internet connection. This month, Yale announced it would make material from seven popular courses available online, with 30 more to follow.
As with many technology trends, new services and platforms are driving change. Last spring marked the debut of "iTunes U," a section of Apple's popular music and video downloading service now publicly hosting free material from 28 colleges. Meanwhile, the University of California, Berkeley recently announced it would be the first to make full course lectures available on YouTube. Berkeley was already posting lectures, but YouTube has dramatically expanded their reach.
If there isn't yet something for everyone, it's only a matter of time. On iTunes, popular recent downloads include a climate change panel at Stanford, lectures on existentialism by Cal-Berkeley professor Hubert Dreyfus, and a performance of Mozart's requiem by the Duke Chapel Choir. Berkeley's offerings include 48 classes, from "Engineering Thermodynamics" to "Human Emotion."