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Your MIT Diploma: Coming to Singapore

By Tatyana Lugovskaya

MIT will soon begin granting Master of Engineering degrees to students from the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University as part of the second phase of the Singapore-MIT Alliance.

Starting next year, the students at the two Singapore universities will be able to attend MIT classes online via teleconferencing equipment, partly in the new Stata Center classrooms, and will also spend one semester on campus.

The Singapore-MIT Alliance has existed since 1998, and is currently in its first phase. Graduates from the program currently receive a Singapore-MIT Alliance certificate from MIT and either a masters or PhD from their Singapore university, but no degree from MIT.

Program to expand if successful

Alliance Co-Director Anthony T. Patera said that the program was aiming to have 16 students per year in each of five programs.

The cost of the SMA students will be funded by Singapore’s government, Patera said. “One of the primary things that SMA-2 is bringing on the academic side is” funding for MEng students, he said.

When the first phase of the alliance began in 1998, Singapore’s government invested approximately $19 million in the first year.

“The same amount of funding will be available for the first year of phase two,” said Dean of Engineering Thomas L. Magnanti.

He said that any further expansion of the program into PhD degrees, for example, is dependent on the success of the current program.

“It is true that Singapore has an interest in going even further,” he said.

Currently Norway, Kuwait, Venezuela, Brazil, and the Philippines have similar programs at MIT for MEng students that are government-funded, Patera said.

Distance learning worries students

“There’s a feeling that MIT should be about MIT students,” said Patera. He said he thought that having the SMA students be full Masters of Engineering candidates would help them better integrate into the culture rather than having a separate program.

“Some people have raised concerns over the dilution of the MIT degree,” Patera said. “There is no special SMA admission, so there is no dilution at the level of admissions,” he said.

“I feel it’s not the same,” said Electrical Engineering and Computer Science student Andrew E. Tsai ’04. “I feel the online materials should be a resource, but not a primary way of getting a degree,” he said.

“These students will honor the MIT residency requirement” of spending one semester on campus, Patera said. “Even if they are at a distance, it’s a highly interactive experience.”

In addition, many schools have similar but lesser programs, such as Harvard’s Extension School that grants a degree of continuing education, he said.

The first phase “was a test of concept,” Magnanti said. “Could we provide MIT-class education at a distance? The performance is indistinguishable. In that sense, we’ve proven the concept of the first class education at a distance,” he said.

Singapore funds program

According to the MIT News Office press release, the SMA-2 five-year initiative will be fully funded by Singapore’s government, primarily by the Singapore Ministry of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Education.

“We wouldn’t be able to run such a large-scale experiment without funding,” Magnanti said.

The five graduate engineering programs in the areas strategically important to both countries are Advanced Materials for Micro- and Nano-Systems, High Performance Computation for Engineering Systems, Innovation in Manufacturing Systems and Technology, Molecular Engineering of Biological and Chemical Systems, and Computer Science.

Classes include live interaction

“SMA revolutionized the concept of distance learning,” said Alvin Teng ’00, a graduate of the program, in an interview with OpenDOOR, an online magazine published by the MIT Alumni Association.

“Unlike most distance learning,” Teng said, “the classroom experience is interactive and students can interrupt the professor to ask questions or exchange ideas with their counterparts at MIT.”

According to a faculty newsletter, co-written by Patera and Steven R. Lerman, a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, interactive sessions are held in the 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. time slots.

In a typical day, SMA holds three or four such classes each morning and each evening.