In what has to be the most attractive online learning offer for techies ever, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced yesterday it would offer all materials for 500 of its courses online, for free, within two years.

While companies try to figure out how to make money from distance learning, MIT will put almost all its courses online, without charge, in what it has dubbed OpenCourseWare. However, professors won't be forced to participate, and surfers can't earn MIT course credits this way.

The school wants to put all the materials - lecture notes, assignments, sample problems, reading lists - for 500 courses online by 2003, adding 1,500 more courses over the next decade. Even an MIT student would admit that's a lot of work.

MIT wants other colleges, especially those in developing countries, to use the material, and it wants to show people what the MIT curriculum looks like.