MIT’s New Free Courses May Threaten (and Improve) the Traditional Model, Program’s Leader Says

The recent announcement that Massachusetts Institute of Technology would give certificates around free online course materials has fueled further debate about whether employers may soon welcome new kinds of low-cost credentials. Questions remain about how MIT’s new service will work, and what it means for traditional college programs.

On Monday The Chronicle posed some of those questions to two leaders of the new project: L. Rafael Reif, MIT’s provost, and Anant Agarwal, director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. They stressed that the new project, called MITx, will be run separately from the institute’s longstanding effort to put materials from its traditional courses online. That project, called OpenCourseWare, will continue just as before, while MITx will focus on creating new courses designed to be delivered entirely online. All MITx materials will be free, but those who want a certificate after passing a series of online tests will have to pay a “modest fee.”

Q. I understand you held a forum late last month for professors at MIT to ask questions about the MITx effort. What were the hottest questions at that meeting?

Mr. Agarwal: There were a few good questions. One was, How will you offer courses that involve more of a soft touch? More of humanities, where it may not be as clear how to grade answers?

Mr. Reif: One particular faculty member said, How do I negotiate with my department head to get some time to be doing this? Another one is, Well, you want MIT to give you a certificate, how do we know who the learner is? How do we certify that?

Q. That is a question I’ve heard on some blogs. How do you know that a person is who they say they are online? What is your answer to that?

Mr. Agarwal: I could give a speech on this question. … In the very short term students will have to pledge an honor code that says that they’ll do the work honestly and things like that. In the medium term our plan is to work with testing companies that offer testing sites around the world, where they can do an identity check and they can also proctor tests and exams for us. For the longer term we have quite a few ideas, and I would say these are in the so-called R&D phase, in terms of how we can electronically check to see if the student is who they say they are, and this would use some combination of face recognition and other forms of technique, and also it could involve various forms of activity recognition.

Q. You refer to what’s being given by MITx as a certificate. But there’s also this trend of educational badges, such as an effort by Mozilla, the people who make the Firefox Web browser, to build a framework to issue such badges. Is MIT planning to use that badge platform to offer these certificates?

Mr. Agarwal: There are a lot of experiments around the Web as far as various ways of badging and various ways of giving points. Some sites call them “karma points.” Khan Academy has a way of giving badges to students who offer various levels of answering questions and things like that. Clearly this is a movement that is happening in our whole business. And we clearly want to leverage some of these ideas. But fundamentally at the end of the day we have to give a certificate with a grade that says the student took this course and here’s how they did—here’s their grade and we will give it to them. … But there are many, many ways the Internet is evolving to include some kind of badging and point systems, so we will certainly try to leverage these things. And that’s a work in progress.

Q. So there will be letter grades?

Mr. Agarwal: Correct.

Q. So you’ve said you will release your learning software for free under an open-source license. Are you already hearing from institutions that are going to take you up on that?

Mr. Agarwal: Yes, I think there’s a lot of interest. Our plan is to make the software available online, and there has been a lot of interest from a lot of sources. Many universities and other school systems have been thinking about making more of their content available online, and if they can find an open platform to go with I think that will be very interesting for a lot of people.

Q. If you can get this low-cost certificate, could this be an alternative to the $40,000-plus per year tuition of MIT for enough people that this will really shake up higher education? That may not threaten MIT, but could it threaten and even force some colleges to close if they have to compete with a nearly free certificate from your online institution?

Mr. Reif: First of all this is not a degree, this is a certificate that MITx is providing. The second important point is it’s a completely different educational environment. The real question is, What do employers want? I think that for a while MITx or activities like MITx—and there is quite a bit of buzz going on around things like that—will augment the education students get in college today. It’s not intended to replace it. But of course one can think of, “What if in a few years, I only take two MITx-like courses for free and that’s enough to get me a job?” Well, let’s see how well all this is received and how well or how badly the traditional college model gets threatened.

In my personal view, I think the best education that can be provided is that in a college environment. There are many things that you cannot teach very well online. Let me give you, for instance, an example of something that is important: ethics and integrity and things like that. You walk on the MIT campus and by taking a course with Anant Agarwal and meeting him and other professors like him you get the sense of ethics and integrity. Is it easy to transfer that online in a community? Maybe it is, but it’s going to take a bit of research to figure out how to do that.

My point is that for a while I view this as augmenting the education you get on a residential model. And yes, it may threaten, and if it does the residential model has to get better. Our objective is to actually use MITx to even increase further what we do on campus, to make it stronger and to be able to resist and survive and do very well in this potential disruptive situation.

Mr. Agarwal: The one piece I would add is that online technologies and online mechanisms will also improve the on-campus experience. For instance, making available a lot of the content in a way that more students can do things at their own pace will give both the lecturers and the students more time. If a lot of the grading and a lot of the mechanical and repetitive things that professors do can be offloaded to online technology, that gives professors more time and enables them, both professors and students, to participate in certain kinds of activities such as doing projects, being creative, the apprenticeship model of education. Many of these things will be given a lot more time and hopefully substantially improve on-campus experiences as well.

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