Massachusetts Institute of Technology mathematics professor Gilbert Strang knows how to reach a mass audience. His video lecture for course 18.06, Linear Algebra, has been downloaded more than 1.8 million times since 2003 by viewers spanning the globe, from Libya to India and Boston to Los Angeles. Strang, who graduated from MIT in 1955, has had an illustrious career as an educator for 50 years, more than 30 of which have been spent as a mathematics professor at MIT. He was an integral player in contributing his coursework and lectures to MIT's "OpenCourseWare" website, which was created in 2001 and currently offers nearly 2,000 MIT courses free for anyone with Internet access. Strang's 18.06 Linear Algebra video is one of the most viewed on the site.
"Professor Strang was an early advocate and has been a very strong supporter throughout the eight years of the program," says Cecilia d'Oliveira, the executive director of the OpenCourseWare site. "OCW provides a unique outlet for him to share his passion for mathematics and his teaching skills with an appreciative worldwide audience." U.S. News spoke with Strang about his views on online education and the impact it can have on students and education around the world. Excerpts from Strang's interview are below:
Why did you decide to contribute your video lectures to OpenCourseWare?
With Linear Algebra lecture 18.06, I made them slightly before OpenCourseWare started. Then, OpenCourseWare began half a year later, so it was natural to include them in OpenCourseWare in 2001. It was just my normal class. I didn't do anything different. I had my lectures videotaped because I thought it was a shame that with other good lecturers that I knew, there was no record of them. They were great teachers, but when they retired, their classes were not available to anybody. I could show by example and have them videotaped and used. So at that time, I did not dream that they would be watched by so many people, but it turned out that way.
What are your opinions on free access to online education?
I'm completely positive about it. I'm very happy that those online lecture are so helpful for people. I am doing it now for calculus. More and more students are involved in calculus than linear algebra. I just thought I could help students figure out what's really going on in calculus. The difference with these videos is that they are not in front of class because I don't teach a class on calculus. These are just in front of a camera. They will be put on OpenCourseWare very soon, and because they are not an MIT course, they will go in the "Highlights for High School" section. The unedited versions of these video lectures are available on my website: math.mit.edu/~gs.
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How effective are your online lectures at teaching students about linear algebra and eventually calculus?
To learn something, you have to do it. You have to solve problems yourself—and practice. The online lecture just in itself doesn't demand solving problems. But a full-scale online course would. Mine is just the lectures; I'm not doing the homework part of the course. These are for students taking linear algebra or calculus somewhere, but they're kind of lost. This gives them a review from somebody different at their own time, which often is evenings. Students are watching them at 10 p.m., and that possibility is really what makes it work.
What do you see in the future for online education?
I think we're going to see good high school online education, and not just in calculus like I'm doing. We'll see some good teaching in all kinds of high school subjects and probably even below high school. I think it's got to happen. Lectures like mine will be freely available, so there's no cost involved whatsoever. That's the way I would want to be involved. So I'm just happy to give.
Anyone can access Strang's 18.06 Linear Algebra video lectures, lecture notes, exams, and assignments online free of charge at ocw.mit.edu. Five of Strang's calculus video lectures will be available in OpenCourseWare's "Highlights for High School" section this spring.