Its been fascinating to observe the discourse around higher education in the last few years. As US economy melted down in 2008 and university endowments lost significant percentage of their holdings, strategy sessions were held at colleges and universities across the country to figure out how to cut costs and to increase revenues. From College of Wooster to MIT, just to name my own Alma maters, administrations, faculty and students dealt with this issue and considered big changes. Lots of good ideas – some outright disruptive to the current model of higher education – were discussed as front page news. Right around then Clay Christensen, the guru of disruption and innovation, also penned a book focused on how education needs to be transformed.
This Tsunami coincided with the meteoric rise in popularity of the online learning phenomenon of the Khan Academy. Salman Khan’s simple, direct, easy to comprehend online video lectures didn’t just appeal to his initial audience of students in other parts of the world, but also people here – from the usual online college students to casual learners including the likes of Bill Gates. And Salman is not mincing words when he says he wants to turn education on its head, not just with lectures but also with exercises and analytics platform that lies as the back-end to the short videos.
MIT has been an innovator in the field of education and has not been shy to experiment. It is, then, no surprise that MIT has also stepped into the game to neither suffer with shrinking federal budgets and grants nor to be left behind by competitors. Fortunately MIT does not see organizations like Khan Academy as competitors (that would be insane and futile). MIT is embracing innovation and inserting itself into the mix with its own flavor and strength. MIT is doing something creative. Just before 2011 ended, MIT announced its MITx initiative: free online courses with support and guidance from MIT faculty and staff. If executed on right, I believe it can really be a game-changer in MIT’s reach, influence, and ability to shape higher education. And if done right, it can also bring considerable additional revenue into MIT.
MIT has experimented plenty in the past with distance learning. From beloved physics lectures taught by Walter Lewin to MIT’s engagement via videos and otherwise with universities in Singapore, Malaysia, Abu Dhabi, etc and the Open Course Ware project. But MITx incorporates one major difference: those who demonstrate mastery of the subjects will be able to receive certifications from MITx, but not MIT degrees. There would be a charge for this as well, but it is expected that the MITx program will be more interactive with frequent feedback from faculty, lecturers and teaching assistants to assist learning. There would likely also be online learning exercises, analytics, and some form of the famous MIT problem-sets available for students to tackle. I am told Prof Anant Agarwal is already at work on software needed to manage and deliver all this.
This is wonderful. This is not just great content by MIT professors delivered online – this is using technology to promote learning and rewarding those who watch, practice, and master the subjects with something that can actually be helpful in people’s careers. MIT has a tremendous brand and would certainly carry over incredibly well into the MITx certification. Imagine your high school graduate technician at work showing up with an MITx certificate demonstrating he has mastered the equivalent of MIT course 6.002 (circuits and electronics – likely to be the first MITx course). I would certainly expect opportunities emerge for such individuals.
As I think about MITx, I can’t stop but think how awesome this can be for countless colleges and universities around the world that aspire to learn from MIT, whose students dream of being at MIT, and whose administrations have long wondered how to bring a piece of MIT to their communities. MIT faculty and administrations have hosted many of them over decades but not more than a handful of them are able to spend the millions of dollars that programs like MIT-Singapore cost…but now, for a small fee paid to MIT per student, not only can they get access to curated course content, interactive feedback from MIT faculty and staff, but also have their students collect certifications if they perform well on the coursework. From Vietnam, India and Pakistan to Turkey, Peru and Kenya, students could benefit from this platform.
MITx can simultaneously become a tool for student learning as well as teacher training. Students worldwide could learn online as well as get additional help, support, guidance and personalized attention from teachers in class. Over the last decade I have been involved in various ways to promote higher education in Pakistan. As we worked on a plan to establish the first private research university in science and engineering in Pakistan (LUMS SSE), the biggest problem we faced was the availability of high quality undergraduate and graduate teachers that could bring to their teaching the kind of pedagogical training in problem-solving that makes places like MIT and Stanford special. MITx could be a way to narrow that vast gap. Locally trained faculty working as teaching assistants under a few highly trained and experienced faculty could find tremendous leverage in their work with the content and context of MITx. This would be much better for learning, in my opinion, than individuals in those countries using MITx online by themselves. And this might be good for MIT as well. Revenue generation from institutions in countries where collecting individual contributions might be difficult, complimentary teaching support for their MITx content, and possibly MITx diploma/degree programs in the future.
Needless to say, I am incredibly excited about the opportunities that may come about with MITx. I am anxiously awaiting for more details to be released and, in typical MIT style, early experiments on the system to begin. In the meantime, I would encourage educators and college/university administrators around the world to also take notice and keep an eye out for how they could benefit from this and other such innovations online. We may be close to democratizing education for billions of people around the world. Wouldn’t that be something!