Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A potential game-changer in higher education?

Forbes reported last month that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one of the foremost private universities in the world, plans to offer its curriculum over the Internet - free of charge.

The program will not allow students to earn an M.I.T. degree. Instead, those who are able to exhibit a mastery of the subjects taught on the platform will receive an official certificate of completion. The certificate will obviously not carry the weight of a traditional M.I.T. diploma, but it will provide an incentive to finish the online material. According to the New York Times, in order to prevent confusion, the certificate will be a credential bearing the distinct name of a new not-for-profit body that will be created within M.I.T.

. . .

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. In the future, students and faculty will be able to control which classes will be available on the system based on their interests, creating a personalized education setting.

M.I.T.x represents the next logical evolution in the mushrooming business of free online education by giving students an interactive experience as opposed to a simple videotaped lecture.

. . .

Whether M.I.T.x will directly threaten the margins at for-profit online universities, such as the University of Phoenix, APUS, or DeVry remains to be seen. But as M.I.T.x starts to provide many of the salient virtues of for-profit online colleges, such as a robust learning management systems and real-time virtual interaction, these publicly traded education companies might have to lower fees in order to compete with M.I.T.x’s compelling free price. In addition, the success of M.I.T.x, OCW, and Academic Earth may push dramatic technological innovation at for-profits, so that they can maintain a unique selling proposition versus their free competitors. Moreover, as the rapidly growing number of what are termed “self educators” choose free college education, a cottage industry of social media support services might evolve to bring them together for free in-person study and help sessions.

Which is all to say that, against this country’s sizable need for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) graduates, M.I.T.x is nothing short of revolutionary. This is especially true if you aren’t a credential freak and ... just want to improve your chops in a marketable subject area.

There's more at the link.

I'm particularly interested in this initiative from two perspectives.

  1. All four of my university qualifications were obtained through part-time study; two through distance (correspondence) education, and two through evening classes. There are many who, like me, could not or cannot afford to study full-time. If MIT makes its course material available online, and can come to an arrangement with a local community college or university to offer that material to the latter's students, who can then discuss it with local lecturers and professors and sit local examinations in the subject(s) concerned, this might greatly improve the standard of local, low-cost tertiary education. The same might apply to institutions in poorer countries overseas. (In fact, the latter might be even more interesting, in that local lecturers could use the same materials to improve their own mastery of their subjects and upgrade their own qualifications, as well as help their students absorb it.)
  2. As a former prison chaplain, I've seen the difficulties faced by inmates in trying to improve their educational qualifications. They don't have much (if any) money available to pay for distance education, they can't attend evening classes, and there are few (if any) qualified staff available to help them cope with the challenges of learning in such an artificial (and frequently oppressive) environment. Something like this MIT initiative could revolutionize education behind bars. If arrangements can be made for inmates to access MIT's materials without threatening security, it might open to them a whole new way to earn advanced qualifications and prepare themselves to re-enter society.

I can only applaud MIT for this initiative . . . and wonder whether they've thought of all that it might imply, for themselves as much as for education in general. This might precipitate a real revolution in higher learning. I hope it does! You can rest assured that I'll be one of those taking advantage of it. After all, I never studied many things that are taken for granted at American universities (although, to be fair, I covered several subjects that aren't always offered at US institutions). Now's my chance to fill those gaps!



Anonymous said...

It really depends on whether employers consider M.I.T.x certificates to have any value. As most (all?) of them will be in STEM fields the answer may be "yes," but it's too soon to be sure. I have heard that except for some defense contractors most employers give little or no value to time spent in the military, it might be that the certificates will get the same treatment.

Anonymous said...

I hope that it takes off, but the problem, as I see it, is that most hiring structures are 'credential freaks'.
And on the flip side, if M.I.T.x takes off, what will be the incentive to pay to go to MIT, which is supplying the quality infrastructure and brand even if M.I.T. x is a different body? Not that the funding mechanisms for universities don't need reform, they do; but this might be a rather messy new factor. Who pays for what? If the taxpayers of a certain state fund an institution...should they subsidize everyone else? Should the students who are paying tuition subsidize someone else's certification? It's not an easy answer.

Anonymous said...

IIRC MIT has been working to get this program up and running for a couple of years now. The biggest problem I see - as mentioned above - is that HR doorways are now mostly staffed by degreed gatekeepers. And those folks are not inclined to out-of-box thinking that would be required to view a cert as a viable alternative to a college degree.

I've seen this happen a couple of times at a large defense company where I work for security.

DaddyBear said...

This might be a good a great way to do continuing education or to sharpen skills.

Looks like I may have a new hobby.

Anonymous said...

Say you went into debt to pay $50,000 per year for an M.I.T. degree and the university decides to give the same thing away for free, just the wording on the diploma is different. Would you be happy subsidizing this activity?