• July 31, 2014

MIT Will Offer Certificates to Outside Students Who Take Its Online Courses

Millions of learners have enjoyed the free lecture videos and other course materials published online through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's OpenCourseWare project. Now MIT plans to release a fresh batch of open online courses—and, for the first time, to offer certificates to outside students who complete them.

The credentials are part of a new, interactive e-learning venture, tentatively called MITx, that is expected to host "a virtual community of millions of learners around the world," the institute will announce on Monday.

Here's how it will work: MITx will give anyone free access to an online-course platform. Users will include students on the MIT campus, but also external learners like high-school seniors and engineering majors at other colleges. They'll watch videos, answer questions, practice exercises, visit online labs, and take quizzes and tests. They'll also connect with others working on the material.

The first course will begin around the spring of 2012. MIT has not yet announced its subject, but the goal is to build a portfolio of high-demand courses—the kind that draw more than 200 people to lecture halls on the campus, in Cambridge, Mass. MIT is investing "millions of dollars" in the project, said L. Rafael Reif, the provost, and the plan is to solicit more from donors and foundations.

Ten years ago, MIT galvanized the open-education movement by giving away free learning materials from 2,100 courses. But some universities are moving beyond publishing online syllabi and simple videos. They now provide virtual tutors and automated feedback through interactive projects like the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University and the free online computer-science courses at Stanford University. MIT's new venture is a step in that direction.

If Stanford's experience is any indication, the potential pool of participants could be vast. Back in November, roughly 94,000 students enrolled in Andrew Ng's open course on machine learning there.

MIT's project could also help answer a big question facing open education: How do you sustain projects whose content is free?

Although access to MITx courses will carry no cost, the institute plans to charge a "modest" fee for certificates that indicate a learner has mastered the content. It's unclear exactly how the assessment will work.

What is clear is that any credentials "would not be issued under the name MIT," according to an MITx fact sheet. "Rather, MIT plans to create a not-for-profit body within the institute that will offer certification for online learners of MIT course work," the sheet says. "That body will carry a distinct name to avoid confusion."

Mr. Reif stressed that the open-learning experiment "is not an easier version of MIT."

"For them to earn a credential, they have to demonstrate mastery of the subject," he said, "just like an MIT student does."

A 3-Tiered Ecosystem

Monday's announcement marks a shift for MIT. The institute does not offer a fully online education for conventional credits. And when the OpenCourseWare idea emerged, the thinking was to avoid credit-bearing courses so as not to "dilute the MIT brand," according to one official quoted in Unlocking the Gates, a book about open learning by Taylor Walsh of Ithaka S+R, a nonprofit group that promotes the use of technology in higher education.

But the new venture will apparently create a three-tiered ecosystem, with traditional MIT degrees, for residential students; cheaper MITx certificates, and free OpenCourseWare materials, said Roger C. Schonfeld, Ithaka's director of research.

"It seems like an effort to begin to expand the breadth of individuals who can claim an educational association with MIT," he said.

The project aims to "lower the existing barriers between residential campuses and millions of learners around the world," MIT says. But how much will outside individuals get to interact with MIT professors? That's unclear.

One way to promote such contact will be software that handles many questions, said Anant Agarwal, director of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

"Through voting and other mechanisms, you can create a funnel of requests so that the requests that come off the funnel at the very top can actually be answered by MIT professors and MIT TA's," he said. "A large number of questions at the lower parts of the funnel can actually be answered by other learners who may be slightly ahead."

MIT faculty members have also developed technology that can automatically grade essays. Other technologies that could come into play here include automatic transcription, online tutors, and crowdsourced grading.

The core idea of OpenCourseWare—free online content—spread far beyond MIT. The institute hopes this project will also catch on elsewhere. To help make that happen, it will release the MITx open-learning software at no charge, so other educational institutions can adopt it.

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