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.
As impressive as it will be to provide MIT’s high-quality courses for free to students across the world, the revolutionary nature of the initiative does not consist in this alone. The true distinctiveness of the project, according to MIT Provost L. Rafael Reif, consists in the fact that MITx will combine this expansion of online learning with a continuous updating of its learning technology. According to the website, “offering interactive MIT courses online to learners around the world builds upon MIT’s OpenCourseWare, a free online publication of nearly all of MIT’s undergraduate and graduate course materials. Now in its 10th year, OpenCourseWare includes nearly 2,100 MIT courses and has been used by more than 100 million people.” Moreover, MIT will make its MITx open-learning software available, free of charge, to any and all education institutions who wish to employ it enhance the quality of their own online programs. This will make it possible for “other communities of developers to contribute to it, thereby making it self-sustaining,” notes Anant Agarwal, an MIT professor and director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), who adds that this would guarantee that “the infrastructure will improve continuously as it is used and adapted.”
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.”)
MITx merges Khan’s interactivity with the collegiate content of Academic Earth “while drawing primarily from MIT’s advanced course material,” notes Crotty. He concludes that, given (1) MITx’s appropriateness for instruction in STEM subjects, and (2) “the country’s sizable need for STEM graduates, M.I.T.x is nothing short of revolutionary.”
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.