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The January/Februaryπ Faculty Newsletter (FNL) marks the second issue in a row in which MIT’s faculty launched a coordinated response to a major Institute development. Last issue, it was MIT 2030. Now, the faculty have turned their collective eye towards MITx — the online learning initiative set to open to the public next week.

Faculty reactions to MITx, as expressed in the FNL, are mixed. The Newsletter’s editorial board and Faculty Chair Samuel M. Allen PhD ’75 took a largely middle-of-the road approach in their columns. They expressed optimism over the promise of MITx but called for increased attention to the platform’s implementation and asked how on-campus education at MIT will change as MITx grows.

However, Emeritus Professor of Mechanical Engineering Woodie C. Flowers PhD ’73 took a critical stance, saying the direction and motivation of MITx should be different. Provost L. Rafael Reif, who is leading the MITx initiative, stood by his program and was careful to underscore the distinction that “MITx is not MIT.”

“MIT is in a powerful position to influence industry, governments, and other academic institutions to work together to develop systems that enhance education,” wrote Flowers, who suggested that an unspoken goal of MITx may be to beat for-profit online schools at their own game. “Our hubris is getting in the way. How many of us would be enthusiastic about joining a project titled Stanfordx?”

Instead, wrote Flowers, MIT should be putting its resources towards developing better “training tools” — the type of chalk-and-talk knowledge traditionally conveyed through hour-long lectures and textbook readings. He cited E.O. Wilson’s digital biology textbook Life on Earth as a good example of next-generation training tools.

MITx, he added, should not make a mistake like the OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiative — which Flowers described as “a large database developing digital rot and becoming increasingly irrelevant,” long-since eclipsed in page-views by the free Khan Academy.

Allen, while noting that MITx has big potential to change an MIT education, said that not enough time has been spent considering what students who come to the Institute will actually do on-campus.

“There has certainly been focus on what technology-enhanced delivery of courses might look like, but not so much on the long-term impact on our residential students. But the long-range projection that distance learning may ultimately jeopardize the viability of our current residential education experience has received insufficient attention, in my view,” he wrote.

Allen drew on his personal experience doing freshman advising through a weekly blacksmithing seminar, saying that close faculty-student interactions like those should be enhanced and more common if MITx puts other types of learning online.

In a more general way than Allen’s column, the newsletter’s editorial board said that more attention should be paid to MITx and its possible impact. “The Provost’s MITx announcement stimulated a little buzz in the halls, but not nearly enough,” they said. “We could well be at an educational tipping point, where during the next 10 years MIT will change more than it has in the past 100.”

Putting forth a vision for a high-quality, globally-accessible education — “[Imagine it’s 2030] … you learn physics and computer science from MIT; philosophy and Sanskrit from Harvard. Art history from Yale …” — the board called on faculty to help steer the MITx initiative:

“The Provost has lit a match. It is up to all of us to catch fire, to participate, to innovate, to promote, to argue, and to help MIT manage its way through a time that will be partly exciting, partly scary, but certainly defining.”

On the heels of the Institute Diversity Summit in late January — and perhaps presaging the ongoing campus debate over affirmative action — the newsletter also published statistics on MIT’s hiring and enrollment of underrepresented minorities and women. Over 25 percent of undergraduates now are underrepresented minorities, but numbers for faculty (about seven percent) and graduate students (about 12 percent) lagged behind. As recently as 2006, only 20 percent of undergraduates were underrepresented minorities.

Undergraduate enrollment of women has held steady at about 45 percent over the past several years, but faculty and graduate student rates have continued to climb, reaching about 22 percent and 32 percent in 2012, respectively.