Will MITx Change How We Think About Higher Education?

While many colleges and universities are trying to adapt to the forces affecting higher education today, a recent move by the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology is about to cause a seismic shift.

The prototype version of MITx is scheduled for launch in spring 2012. MITx is an outgrowth of MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW), which began in 2002. Building upon the inventory of nearly 2,100 MIT courses, MITx will offer the online teaching of MIT courses worldwide and the opportunity for able learners to gain certification of mastery of MIT material.

The launch of MITx represents a milestone both in terms of access to higher education and higher education credentialing. The significance of this event is that this shift is coming from MIT, more often thought of as a premier global university than a radical institution.

Beginning with a portfolio of selected courses, MITx is expected to grow over time. It will offer a compendium of courses needed for demonstrated competence in a given subject, including lectures, syllabi, online tests, feedback, group discussions, labs and interaction with MIT faculty.

Online learners who demonstrate mastery of subjects will earn a certificate of completion of MIT coursework. As with MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW), the teaching materials on MITx will be available for free, as will be the teaching on the platform. Those who have the ability and motivation to demonstrate mastery of content can receive a credential for a modest fee. MIT is in the process of determining a fee structure for both individual and groups of courses.

The credential would not be issued under the name MIT, but rather a body within the institute. MIT plans to create a not-for-profit body that will offer certification for online learners of MIT coursework. That body will carry a distinct name to avoid confusion.

MIT will also make the open-source software infrastructure on which MITx is based freely available to educational institutions. Through an online interactive learning platform, this infrastructure will establish ways for other universities, as well as interested individuals, to join MIT in improving and adding features to the technology.

Disruptive or creative destruction

The open-educational-resources movement began around a decade ago. A term applied to free and open digital publication of educational resources—such as course materials created by universities—these resources are accessible to anyone, anytime via the Internet. Open-source offerings do not carry college credits per se nor can they be used toward earning a degree.

Now in its 10th year, MIT’s OCW includes nearly 2,100 MIT courses and has been used by more than 100 million people.

MIT is not the only university to understand the value of OCW. Stanford, Yale, Johns Hopkins, Notre Dame, the University of Michigan, the University of California Berkeley and numerous other distinguished higher education institutions have joined in the movement.

Hundreds of English-speaking open courseware initiatives now exist across the U.S. as well as in England, Canada and Australia. A big boost for the idea of “open access” to the world’s knowledge is a recent announcement to let the public view, for free, some of the trove of information available through JSTOR, a service that helps scholars, researchers and students discover, use and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive of more than 1,000 academic journals and other scholarly content.

But this new iteration, MITx, represents a wider disruption—and perhaps even a creative destruction. It begs the question: Is this the catalyst that will change how we think about traditional higher education?

Reading the signs

At a time when higher education is essential for succeeding in a global economy, we have reached a crossroads with a vast university system that has difficulty accommodating demand because the cost is prohibitive. Access is becoming increasingly out of reach.

Consider the confluence of forces driving us to reconsider how we look at traditional higher education. Those forces include disruptive technologies (Internet, open courseware movement, etc.), but also tuition tipping points, the changing labor market, the economy and changing demographics.

The annual price tag for a college credential has risen about three times as fast as inflation, and there is no sign that it’s slowing down. Debt burdens—$110-billion in student loans borrowed this last year—point to questions about the value of a degree and the nature of credentials.

This suggests to some that going to college at any price may no longer be worth it. Indeed, approximately half of Americans think the higher education system is doing a poor or fair job in providing value for the money spent, according to a survey last spring by the Pew Research Center.

Higher education game-changer?

Revolutions come as a result of a response to dominant power. Self-directed learning (SDL) may be that tool for some who lack access because of time, place or circumstances. Different from traditional higher education, it can be a viable means of access to knowledge acquisition with a value-added element. Learners avail themselves of the relevant knowledge when and where they wish.

While a similar argument was made about the “distance learning” revolution 20 years ago, it’s different this time with MIT (through MITx) offering not only free content and sophisticated online pedagogy, but most significantly, a credential from a world-renowned university for a very modest fee.

Are we about to see the kind of paradigm shift in higher education that was seen in the health care industry when funding formulas changed dramatically? It could be an earthquake for the majority of colleges, which depend on tuition income rather than big endowments and research grants.

The era of high-level SDL promises free access, rapidly increasing quality and advanced educational content. With access to relevant knowledge to their career and a credential of mastery from an MIT or for that matter Stanford (which is embarking on a similar endeavor to that of MITx), what would stop individuals from making an informed choice? Credentialing from world-class institutions, at anytime and anyplace, and at a highly affordable price could be a very attractive option.

When combined with the free online textbooks at sites like Textbook Revolution and TextBooksFree, plus other course books from Google Books, World Public Library and Project Guttenberg, MITx will provide students wtih access to a high-level collegiate learning experience totally online for a nominal fee. It’s easy to imagine that these students will form their own virtual study groups, affiliations and various other aspects of traditional student life. The only thing missing from a face-to-face MIT or Stanford education may, in fact, be the “live” campus experience.

What remains to be seen is whether employers desperate for high-level talent will start to bring the drawbridge down and relax their education screens to include nontraditional “self learners,” especially if these learners have received certificates of completion or mastery from distinguished world-class institutions such as MIT or Stanford. As these “graduates” demonstrate value to their employers, it might open the door to many more nontraditional self-learners.

A threat to higher education or a wake-up call?

The wider significance of MITx to higher education may not be so much the strategic tension between tyranny of the degree versus the transformation of learning into a simple commodity that cheapens the challenge of mastering subject matter. Rather, it may be that MITx threatens traditional higher education in general. For some who see universities as credit-producing machines—students as input and revenue dollars as output—it may seem so. Private higher institutions are already tuition-driven entities and public higher institutions are becoming increasingly so.

This shift advances a question many have asked before and one that is particularly relevant today. What commitment does higher education have in creating learning opportunities that break barriers to education?

Is higher learning more than taking a class? Is it more than subject content and testing for knowledge acquisition? Is it membership within a community of learners?

If the latter is the case, then access to higher learning—lifelong learning—must be seen as higher education’s primary role and as an asset for all members of the community.

MITx and other similar programs coming out of “high-end” universities are realizing that public higher education has had it right all along. It’s a question of access—precisely what public higher education has embraced since its inception as the core of its mission. Aligned with this core mission of access comes both affordability and student success in the forms of retention, persistence, graduation and preparation for the job market.

With funding support of public higher education dwindling, providing access becomes even more challenging. The rise of new forms of self-directed learning and nontraditional credentialing will increasingly be a part of our higher education fabric and fill gaps by recognizing learning areas that employers may value but traditional grades and diplomas often miss, such as certain computer technology skills, critical thinking know-how and interpersonal proficiencies.

Consider the fact that the marketplace has overtaken the government as the dominant force shaping and reshaping American higher education. MITx is addressing the market by lowering the existing barriers between residential campuses and the millions of learners around the world by making MIT educational content accessible and providing those learners with an opportunity to earn an MIT-related credential.

Whether MITx will directly threaten the operating margins of universities (especially for-profit universities) remains to be seen, but higher education continues to be disrupted.

In a global economy, the real question for traditional higher education now becomes whether we continue to offer higher learning to those who can afford the high prices and let the market address the issue of access.

Philip DiSalvio is dean of University College at University of Massachusetts Boston.

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