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With MIT’s involvement in the online education sphere, it is no surprise that the role of MIT in the future of education has yet again taken the spotlight in a faculty newsletter. The March/April issue, published April 12, opens with an editorial on MITx: “One happy consequence [of MITx] is unquestionable: we discuss how we teach more now than ever before.”

As provost, L. Rafael Reif launched MITx in December 2011, and since becoming president of MIT in July 2012, he has made it clear that improving education features prominently on his agenda for the Institute. Reif’s inaugural speech centered on MIT’s role in the future of education, and in early February 2013, he announced the creation of the Institute-Wide Task Force on the Future of MIT Education, co-chaired by Director of Digital Learning Sanjay Sarma and Executive Vice President and Treasurer Israel Ruiz. The task force was charged with proposing an “ecosystem” for innovation in education, recommending “possible experiments and pilot projects” to explore MIT’s educational future, and evaluating MIT’s financial model.

At Wednesday’s faculty meeting, Sarma announced that the task force plans to have a preliminary report prepared by Fall 2013, releasing a final report the following Spring. With a group membership of approximately 50 faculty, staff, undergraduates, and graduate students, it is addressing Reif’s charge with three working groups: MIT Education and Facilities for the Future, Global Implications of edX and the Opportunities It Creates, and A New Financial Model for Education. The task force’s website future.mit.edu also features an Idea Bank, which has collected 147 ideas since April 2.

Under this broad umbrella of evaluating the Institute’s education lies a question that hits closer to home, as phrased by Faculty Chair Samuel M. Allen in this faculty newsletter: “Should we be concerned about the long-term viability of MIT and other residential educational institutions,” especially when “low-cost, high quality, online subjects become widely available”?

In attempting to answer this question, Allen looks back in the most recent faculty newsletter to a 1996–1998 task force, charged by then-President Charles M. Vest to evaluate student life and learning. This earlier learning task force deemed the foundation of an MIT education to rest on the “educational triad”: academics, research, and community. “Extrapolating from the report of the Task Force,” wrote Allen, “an online-only education will always be incomplete because it won’t engage learners in two of the three components of the educational triad.”

So how well does MIT, as it currently stands, fulfill the educational triad? MIT has already experimented with integrating MITx into classes, including 6.002, 3.091, and 8.01. As more MITx subjects are incorporated residential learning, how can faculty roles change to add more value to the on-campus education?

Of the educational triad, research is one area that clearly lends itself better to a residential rather than online experience. Of graduating MIT seniors, 85 percent have conducted research guided by faculty members as a UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program) at some point in the undergraduate careers. However, in the intersection of academics and community, there is more room for improvement.

According to the 2011 undergraduate enrolled student survey, only 14.3 percent of seniors say that, at the end their undergraduate years, four or more faculty members know them well enough to provide a letter of recommendation. In reassessing residential education, Allen, Course 12 (EAPS) professor Timothy L. Grove, Dean of Undergraduate Education Daniel E. Hastings PhD ’80, and Chancellor Eric Grimson PhD ’80 proposed a resolution in the faculty newsletter that “every freshman should have a faculty member serving as a mentor or advisor.” In last Wednesday’s faculty meeting, undergraduates and faculty spoke in favor of the resolution as improving faculty support of students outside of the classroom.

In addition to evaluating how MIT’s educational model could differentiate itself in light of MITx, how could MIT utilize what it learns through Reif’s task force on education and ensuing adaptation? HST professor Nelson Yuan-Sheng Kiang and Course 16 professor Leon Trilling suggest another possibility in the faculty newsletter: “Should MIT Create a School of Education?”

Leon Lin contributed reporting.