Dr. Walter Lewin of MIT Talks About Opening Courses Before OCW

By Stacy Redd Can you tell me how you first got involved with OCW?

Walter Lewin: I cannot. There was no OCW when I began. What do you mean?

WL: I prepared the lectures. Dick Larson (Professor of Electrical Engineering at MIT) had the vision way before OCW existed to have my lectures videotaped, which was very expensive, but he got funding for it. And the reason why he did that was that my lectures were legendary. They were eccentric, they were not conventional; the students loved them. I had TV programs already on MIT closed circuit TV in 1985. In 1995, some of those lectures and some of those help sessions that I did on TV started being shown in Seattle, Washington, on the University of Washington TV (UWTV). People who knew no physics were watching them.

So every week I had a one-hour program here, every hour on the hour, and I helped students with their problem sets. So gradually I became a campus celebrity in terms of my lectures. And then Dick Larson said, 'They have got to be videotaped.' He got a large grant for that. In 1999 we videotaped all 36 of my lectures, 50 minutes each. OCW didn't even exist. So when did your coursework officially become OCW as it's known today?

WL: I think in 2001, OCW started. So I told them they can have my 1999 lectures. They said, 'Walter, there's no way we can do that. We can only show people's notes and people's slides, but we cannot show videos.' This was because they simply did not have the software to put video on the OCW site yet. But my lectures were still being recorded - in 2002 Dick got funding to have my 35 Electricity and Magnetism lectures videotaped.

I needed funding to have 8.03 lectures video-taped. AT that time (2003) Dick Larson had a different position at MIT and was no longer able to get funding. I then turned to the Leadership of the Physics Department (in 2003) and asked them for financial support. The answer I got was loud and clear: 'We are not interested in video-taped lectures by you' - They lacked vision - they were blind for the revolution that was already set in motion by my 8.01 and 8.02 lectures. At MIT we have people with vision, like Dick Larson, but we have many without vision.

In 2003 OCW gained video capability and Physics 8.02 went up in October of that year. Then they put Physics 8.01 on the air in 2004, and then in 2005, Physics 8.03 went on the air, which is vibrations and waves. So I never had to deal with OCW in the sense that I had maybe 10 or 20 discussions with one of my contact persons with OCW. How did it grow from there?

WL: When it was on OCW, iTunesU copied it, YouTube copied it, Academic Earth copied it, and even Facebook copied. So now there are about two million people per year who watch my lectures, about 6,000 every day. Every morning when I wake up, I have about 20 messages from people from all over the world. That's exciting. Did you adjust your teaching style for the lectures that you knew were being videotaped? Was there any difference to your approach?

WL: My lectures were always eccentric and unconventional. I did not do something special for these. The only thing is that perhaps, since I realized that editing was expensive, the time that I spent on preparing my lectures in 1999 and in 2002 and in 2004 was probably 40 hours on average per lecture. That's incredible. What does your preparation routine look like?

WL: I dry run those lectures three times, two weeks before the lecture to an empty classroom, writing everything on the blackboard, pretending that there is a class. One week before the lecture, 5:00 AM on the morning of the day of the lecture, I will be here in the classroom, empty classroom, no students, and I dry run the lecture. Do you ever feel nervous or anxious before you give a lecture that you know will be videotaped and shared with the world?

WL: How can you be nervous if you're so well prepared? That's a very good point.

WL: Because as you give that lecture, as you dry run in an empty classroom, you take notes. You stop - you have a clock, and every five minutes you put in your lecture notes where you are, and then it turns out the first time that you dry run that it takes 65 minutes. Then you make changes and the next dry run is close to 50 minutes, then the third dry run is 50 minutes on the mark.

WL: Since my three video-taped courses (94 lectures) were among the first to be on OCW, in a way I was the heart of OCW. The number of courses on OCW which have been video-taped is now approximately 40. OCW proudly states: we have approx 2000 courses on OCW. That is true, but more than 1950 of them are not video-taped. Do you think that the materials without the videos are useful to students or do you think they really need to see the lectures to understand the syllabus and the reading list?

WL: You cannot replace a lecture by just giving them only the handouts and the notes and the slides. It's just out of the question. It's apples and coconuts; they're totally different.

If you would see my notes, which I rarely hand out, you still don't see me performing. Without that, it's boring. I've watched some of your videos on the OCW website and I agree. I think that's why your lectures are so well received. They're definitely not boring.

WL: If you hate physics it's only because you had a bad teacher. It's true. I make everyone love physics, no exceptions.

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