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Editor’s Note: The Tech recognizes that the announcement of MITx constitutes a development that will affect students and faculty in important ways. Many of those voices are not yet reflected in this article. Please check back later in this week for additional MITx coverage, once Tech editors have vanquished their finals.

MIT is developing an online educational platform that will be open-source, largely free, and let users outside of MIT earn certificates for completing Institute-caliber courses online. MIT hopes the initiative, internally dubbed “MITx,” will change the way students learn on-campus — by incorporating elements of MITx into existing curricula — and push MIT’s educational reach beyond campus borders in a way the current OpenCourseWare (OCW) cannot.

According to MIT Provost L. Rafael Reif, who has been leading the project, “It’s safe to say that MIT faculty want to offer students the best residential education. Nowadays, it looks like more and more, that’s going to mean integrating online technologies into the campus experience.”

By doing “knowledge transfer” online through MITx, says Reif, “students come to a classroom or lab to do more of the enriching experiences they come to a campus for.” With MITx as the basis for teaching on campus, he says, MIT anticipates other types of learning that cannot be done online will increase, like laboratories and UROP, among other faculty-student “face-to-face” interactions.

But MIT will offer the same online learning experience to the rest of the world as well, says Reif. “If we’re going to do the best job we can for our campus, why don’t we make that available to the whole world? So that everybody can have access to these learning tools, and if you can handle the learning of the MIT-quality of the material, you should just go after it and try.”

Users will have the option of getting an MITx “certificate” by successfully completing a course online, though it will cost a “modest” fee, says Reif. Otherwise, they may use the service free-of-charge.

“If you’re taking a course, if you’re just exploring, you want to learn by yourself, and you don’t really care that [you] can show a piece of paper that says you learned, that’s free,” says Reif.

MITx will serve two additional goals. The software platform that delivers MIT content will be open-source, meaning other institutions — like universities and high schools — could use the technology to offer their own courses. MITx will also serve as a “laboratory” for MIT to experiment with online learning techniques, collecting data from a large user base.

What exactly is MITx?

What exactly will MITx be? How will users — either at MIT or across the planet — go about completing a course online?

MITx draws on a decade of educational software development since OpenCourseWare began in 2001, says Anant Agarwal, head of MIT’s CSAIL artificial intelligence laboratory and professor of electrical engineering and computer science. Agarwal has been leading the development of the platform.

Some departments at MIT have been using online technology in courses they already offer, like Courses 6, 8, and 18, says Agarwal. For instance, Prof. Robert C. Miller in CSAIL has crowdsourced grading of coding assignments by letting qualified users on the web make comments on students’ homework. Agarwal also cited the iLabs project, which lets students remotely conduct experiments in real laboratories — not simulations.

MITx aims to combine the output of efforts like those in a single place.

“Can we pull together a lot of these technologies into a coherent platform — something we can open-source — and make it freely available to everybody in the world,” said Agarwal.

Like OCW, MITx will probably feature video-based instruction. But unlike OCW, MITx videos will be designed for the web, and may feature some kind of interactive element — students, for example, could respond to questions posed by the lecturer and see immediately whether they were right or wrong. That also means that most videos currently on OCW would have to be redone for MITx.

In an even bigger leap from what OCW currently offers, the new system will asks users to complete exams and assignments online. Students would be graded automatically.

“The idea, to get it to scale, is to really take out human graders,” said Agarwal.

Automatic grading does have costs, however. Manual graders at MIT often award points through partial credit, recognizing that a student has the right approach, but may have gotten the final answer wrong. Agarwal says that online problem sets would be designed with partial credit in mind — large problems would be broken up into several steps, with credit awarded at each. Mistakes made at one step would not necessarily mean students would lose credit at subsequent ones.

But some questions ask students to solve problems in a freer, creative way, without step-by-step guidance.

“If you truly do have a free-form problem, I think that’s a very interesting research questions where you don’t want to guide the student down a particular path. … You want to see what creative things they can do,” said the CSAIL professor. “That is an open research question. I’d love to have my colleagues in machine learning technologies … work on problems like this. I think it’s hard.”

MITx certification

MITx will charge users who want to get a certification of completion for a course. Certificates would be awarded if users “show that they master the subject,” said the Provost. “That has to be a stringent requirement of mastering it the way an MIT student would.”

Employers could someday see MITx certificates as desirable in applicants, said the Provost. He said it would be “premature” to say how MIT would treat certificates earned by high school students who later attend MIT.

Agarwal and Reif stressed that certificates would be awarded by MITx — not MIT — and that a certificate would mean something different than an MIT degree.

“MITx will offer a completely different educational experience — it’s online, it’s automated, minimizing human participation and so forth,” said Reif.

“There’s a clear separate brand — it’s MITx,” added Agarwal.

The provost could not say what the fee would be, but he said it would be “affordable” and suggested the meaning of “affordability” might be different depending on the user.

“What a definition of ‘affordable’ can mean, we’d be speculating right now. Maybe worth a week of wages of the median income of people in that country. We’d have to think about something like that.”

Nonetheless, the plan is for MITx to be self-sustaining. In addition to revenue generated by certificate-seekers, MIT would also seek corporate donations. Reif did not rule out alternative forms of revenue generation to be considered as the platform evolves.

In the meantime, MIT “is investing in the few millions” of dollars for the MITx prototype, which will launch with “on the order of” a single course this spring, Agarwal said.

MITx is expected to be a positive net income venture, according to the Provost, but he says its intention is not moneymaking. “We think it’s important to complete these two goals … to improve what we do on campus, and to offer this for the world. That’s a very important goal. The driver is not money,” said Reif.

The provost also “anticipates” that net revenue would be shared with faculty, though it is not yet clear how that scheme will work.

Faculty involvement

Because MITx is largely different from classic lecture-style courses, interested faculty will — at least initially — need to spend time developing a web-based course. Faculty participation is voluntary, says Reif, but he expects there to be interest.

“[For] those faculty who would want to do this — and I hope many will — this will require an investment of their time. … After that investment of time, if we do this right and take a lot of the human aspect out of the automated process, I don’t expect faculty committing too much time into this,” said Reif.

Agarwal said he has seen “extraordinary excitement” among faculty who have met with him and the provost about MITx. “I think our challenge will be, how do faculty create time for themselves in their already-busy teaching schedules?” said Agarwal. “Much like writing a textbook, it could be during summer or during a sabbatical or while teaching a course do extra work during that time. And we will offer help, in terms of TA help and engineers and others to help code up exercises and things like that.”

Inception and further development of MITx

Reif says that brainstorming for the MITx project has been happening for about four years, but it was about a year-and-a-half ago that he asked two committees, the MIT Online Study Group and the MIT Council on Educational Technology (MITCET), to come up with ideas about what an online MIT education would look like. Broadly speaking, MITCET considered how online technology could be incorporated into on-campus education, and the Online Study Group considered such systems in the context of the rest of the world.

The provost added that it was not one committee which ultimately formulated MITx. In addition to the Online Study Group and MITCET, he says MITx reflects years of development on OCW and online learning initiatives pursued by individual departments at MIT.

An MITx prototype will deploy with about one course next semester, says Agarwal. Once the platform is stable, MIT will release the software open-source. A “handful” of courses are expected to be added next fall, with growth beyond that dependent on demand from learners and available faculty resources, Agarwal said.