The growing benefits of online education recently have come together in one revolutionary package, via the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At the end of December 2011, MIT announced its plan to inaugurate an online education program titled “MITx.” As detailed in its website, MITx will offer a subset of MIT’s courses, free of charge, through an online learning platform that will “organize and present course material to enable students to learn at their own pace; feature interactivity, online laboratories and student-to-student communication; allow for the individual assessment of any student’s work and allow students who demonstrate their mastery of subjects to earn a certificate of completion awarded by MITx”; and, finally, “operate on an open-source, scalable software infrastructure in order to make it continuously improving and readily available to other educational institutions.”
MIT’s vision is ambitious, to say the least: It “expects that MITx will eventually host a virtual community of millions of learners around the world.” Moreover, for what it describes as a “small” fee, MITx will award credentials in various areas to successful students who desire documentation of their progress for present and prospective employers.
Appraising MITx in Forbes, James M. Crotty finds in it the promise of “a totally free college education.” Crotty notes the extent to which MITx will support student-centered education: “Students using the program will be able to communicate with their peers through student-to-student discussions, allowing them an opportunity to ask questions or simply brainstorm with others, while also being able to access online laboratories and self-assessments”
Crotty concurs with Reif’s assessment of the truly distinctive character of MITx., viewing it as “the next logical evolution” in the growth of free online education; it provides an “interactive experience” rather a mere “videotaped lecture.” He finds MITx to combine the best of Academic Earth and the Khan Academy. Academic Earth offers online courses, some from prestigious universities, accessible for free to users across the globe. “Users on Academic Earth can watch lectures from some of the brightest minds our universities have to offer from the comfort of their own computer screen. However, that is all they can do: watch.” In contrast, Khan Academy “offers a largely free interactive experience to its users through assessments and exercises, but it limits itself to K–12 education.” (The Khan Academy website, launched by Salman Khan in September of 2006, offers 2,800 tutorials and has delivered nearly 121 million lessons “covering everything from arithmetic to physics, finance, and history and 303 practice exercises.”)
Revolutionary, indeed. As I have written earlier in this space, the ground has moved beneath the feet of higher education, much of which will look very different in but a few short years.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece has been amended since its original posting.