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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 announced the project on Dec. 19, “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.” Reif has been spearheading the MITx initiative.

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, while 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 — its online, it’s automated, minimizing human participation and so forth,” said Reif.

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

But whether the Institute will stick with the MITx name is unclear. At December’s faculty meeting, President Susan J. Hockfield said that “some of us have great hopes that the name will change.”

The provost could not say what the certificate 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 [the user’s] 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. What that course will be is still unclear.

MITx is expected to be profitable, 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

Chair of the Faculty Samuel M. Allen PhD ’75 says the MITx initiative has seen widespread support among faculty, but some have voiced concerns about details that have not been worked out yet. A more definitive faculty opinion might be revealed at a forum on the topic in late January.

Last month’s faculty meeting, held two days after the MITx announcement, was “extremely well attended” despite the upcoming holiday, said Allen. “I think people want to hear more details from the provost about what exactly is being envisioned and what the commitment of faculty energy will be to it.”

Allen’s personal interest in MITx revolves around its potential to change the face of a residential education. If online resources become more effective at delivering information, he asks, “will there be a point where people begin to lose interest in the investment in the residential learning experience?”

The form of a residential, MITx-supplemented education is also not yet clear. Faculty who come to rely on online technology to teach courses may find themselves with substantially more time — but what they do with that time is up for debate. Allen and the provost hope professors will use it to try out nontraditional teaching methods.

“I’d like to work with smaller groups of students,” said Allen. “My favorite kind of interactions are office-hour type interactions, where a group is sitting around a table discussing course material in a highly interactive way.”

But, he added, some faculty may use extra time to pursue research instead of teaching. Keeping faculty interested in teaching might require additional incentives — Allen says he’s not sure what those would be, but they’re of critical importance.

“In terms of incentivizing things, more effort is going to have to be put on how people interact with the community of students on campus. I don’t know how you would do it, but it’s something that I feel — to put it boldly — is something MIT’s long-term future depends on,” Allen said. “We have to further develop and distinguish the residential experience and justify the value of that experience as an alternative to something largely online.”

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.”

Beyond the possibility of a share in revenue, why would faculty want to devote so much time to developing an online course?

Allen notes that participation in MITx is also a research opportunity. Faculty could evaluate the effectiveness of online teaching approaches, and maybe publish their findings. Still others may simply be inspired by the idea of being a part of something new and potentially revolutionary, as well as the opportunity to contribute to education worldwide.

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.

Michael E. Plasmeier ’13 has been the undergraduate representative on MITCET since the beginning of last term. He says that Reif gave the group a presentation on the general goals of MITx on Nov. 28, followed-up by a presentation with more details on Dec. 16 — about two days before the official MITx announcement. After the Nov. 28 meeting, MITCET committee members were asked to provide feedback via a wiki or by emailing the provost.

In addition to meeting with MITCET and the Faculty Policy Committee (both of which have student representation), the provost met with focus groups of graduate and undergraduate students organized by Chancellor Eric Grimson PhD ’80. “They asked all the right questions: will MITx increase the load on our faculty, how will we know who is the person taking the MITx test(s), will MITx weaken the value of an MIT degree, etc.,” said Reif in an email to The Tech.

“From my behind-the-scenes perspective, a lot of faculty were engaged with it, but not in a very public way,” said Allen of the faculty’s role in MITx development. “I think many people felt there was a sense of urgency with regards to making an announcement — I think that urgency was well-founded.”

Plasmeier agreed. “External factors” contributed to the timing of the announcement, he said. “It’s still not very concrete … and there’s still a lot of details to be refined.”

Indeed, other institutions have been pursuing online educational initiatives. Last fall, Stanford University offered three computer science courses online for free (the machine learning course was taught by Andrew Ng SM ’98). Stanford also offers lecture videos for nine additional computer science classes via their OpenClassroom platform, similar to OCW.

Looking ahead, Plasmeier says that he expects MITx to be adopted by faculty on an experimental basis. “We’ll see this slow progression of semester-by-semester, class-by-class, professors will try something out and solicit student feedback on it,” he said.

Professors will determine for themselves whether the new online tools work, Plasmeier added. If data shows that learning outcomes aren’t any better with MITx, instructors could decide to revert back to traditional methods.

“We shouldn’t be afraid of researching new methods to see if there is something better than the standard lecture-based classes,” he added.

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.