This past December MIT announced the launch of “MITx,” a new online learning initiative that will offer a large selection of MIT courses online and will allow those that demonstrate mastery of course material to earn a certificate of completion. The announcement has received much praise from both faculty and students as a mark of progress and a major step towards global education — but has the MIT community really considered the full impact of MITx?
The stated goal of MITx is to “create an open learning infrastructure” where MIT course materials will be available online so that “anyone in the world with the motivation and ability to engage MIT coursework [will] have the opportunity to attain the best MIT-based educational experience that Internet technology enables.”
The issue is that online technology is constantly improving. If MIT were to truly work towards this end goal, at some point all of the MIT curricula would be posted online for open access — and eventually, online learning would rival classroom learning. What then, is the purpose of having a residential MIT campus or university — why not just make MIT an online school, and drop the $50,000+ price tag?
MITx will downplay the importance of an on-campus MIT experience and will make people think that they can get an MIT education from their bedrooms. It is true that some MIT students take eight courses a semester, never go to lecture, and complete all of their work without stepping foot in a classroom; however, that is not the typical MIT experience. A large part of the MIT learning experience is the interaction with professors and TAs, struggling over p-set problems with friends, collaboration, and face-to-face communication. If MITx offers MIT students a comprehensive and robust alternative to lectures and recitation, then the incentive for students to go to class will essentially disappear, and this will have a drastic influence not only on campus culture but also on what it means to receive an MIT education.
President Susan J. Hockfield said “on our residential campus, the heart of MIT, students and faculty are already integrating on-campus and online learning, but the MITx initiative will greatly accelerate that effort.” But in reality what OpenCourseWare (OCW) and other online resources have already accomplished is providing MIT students with a way to sleep through lecture and watch them later — imagine what will happen when MITx is instituted and the online materials are far more comprehensive. There will be a large change in campus climate where MITx will lessen the importance of classroom learning and personal interaction.
Furthermore, instituting a program like MITx detracts from the value of an MIT education. Students at MIT pay tens of thousands of dollars per year to attend the Institute; the thought of the mass public being given for free what we have had to pay for so steeply seems unfair. The point is not that educating the world and spreading information is a bad thing — it is not. However, it is unjust when certain students have to pay extremely high tuition for materials that are being distributed to others online for free — material that ultimately does lessen the competitive advantage of MIT students in the workforce.
That is not to say that a MITx certificate is going to instantaneously eclipse or equate with a real MIT degree. But in the long run, as the online MITx materials improve, the MITx certificate may come to gain more respect among employers. Some may argue that the MIT degree will always be superior to a MITx certificate because MIT teaches problem solving skills that surpass what can be transmitted online. The problem with this is that in the end of the day an MIT diploma is what will brand students as smart and land them a job; it will not matter if they passed their exams from lectures vs. OCW material. Therefore, if the MITx certificates gain enough reputability then they can compete with the MIT diploma. Until MIT tuition is lowered, or some definite limitations are placed on what course material will be posted online, MITx is unfair and detrimental to every enrolled student enrolled at MIT.
Instead of launching an enormous and work-intensive MITx initiative, the MIT administration should dedicate their limited resources and time to bettering the actual MIT community. There are many students on campus who are struggling with their coursework, feeling the stress of the “pressure-cooker” that is MIT. The MIT administration must stop jeopardizing the classroom and campus experience of its own students to better the resumes of the wider public.