Will MITx Disrupt Higher Education?

December 20, 2011, 7:53 am

MIT has been doing online access to education a lot longer than most people, largely due to their invaluable OpenCourseWare project. (Here’s an interview MIT did with me last year on how OCW strongly influenced my inverted-classroom MATLAB course.) Now they are poised to go to the next level by launching an online system called MITx in Spring 2012 that provides credentialing as well as content:

Mr. Reif and Anant Agarwal, director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, said M.I.T.x would start this spring — perhaps with just one course — but would expand to include many more courses, as OpenCourseWare has done. [...]

The M.I.T.x classes, he said, will have online discussions and forums where students can ask questions and, often, have them answered by others in the class.

While access to the software will be free, there will most likely be an “affordable” charge, not yet determined, for a credential.

“I think for someone to feel they’re earning something, they ought to pay something, but the point is to make it extremely affordable,” Mr. Reif said. “The most important thing is that it’ll be a certificate that will clearly state that a body sanctioned by M.I.T. says you have gained mastery.”

The official FAQ reveals a couple of additional points. First, the content of MITx courses will be free — which seems to imply that MITx course content will be different than OCW course content, and not just a certification layer on top of existing resources — and you’ll only pay money for the certificate. Second, there will be no admissions process. If you want a course, you just take it and then pay for the credentialing if you feel like you’re up to it.

I think this last point about having no admissions process may be the most significant piece of MITx. It seems to represent a complete shift from the traditional way of providing access to higher education. As far as I can tell, there will not even be a system of checking prerequisites for MITx courses. If that’s so, then if you feel you can step into, say, an Algorithms class and keep up with the material and demonstrate your mastery, then nobody at MIT will care if you haven’t had the right courses in basic programming, data structures, discrete math, or whatever. MIT is basically saying, we won’t be picky about who we let take these courses — if you can afford it and live up to our standards, we’re happy to credential you.

Of course there are a lot of questions about MITx that are yet to be answered. What is the “modest fee” they plan to charge, and is it really affordable? How exactly will the credentialing process work? (It’s interesting that the certification will be handled by a non-profit organization to be formed within MIT. Is this a kind of outsourcing of grading?) How will one “demonstrate mastery” and what will MITx define as “mastery” in courses that are not strictly skills-based? Will there eventually be a full enough slate of courses offered to make the whole system compelling for learners? And perhaps most importantly, what will employers, graduate schools, and even undergraduate institutions make of applicants who come in with some of these MITx certifications? Without external buy-in, MITx will likely be just another continuing education program like hundreds of others.

We’ll hear a lot more about this in the future, but for now this seems to have the potential to be genuinely disruptive in higher education. What do you think?


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