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President L. Rafael Reif leads a conversation about the future of MIT and online education, among other things, at Sidney-Pacific on Tuesday evening. The discussion, as part of the Sidney-Pacific Distinguished Lecture Series, was attended by several dozen members of the community.
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On Tuesday evening, President L. Rafael Reif gave a presentation at the Sidney-Pacific graduate residence as a part of his Institute-wide listening tour — one of the methods that Reif is using to gather feedback on a number of topics, including thoughts on education, research, and the community, from students and members of the MIT community. The tour will consist of a dozen open sessions with faculty in all five schools, and will serve as a way in which students and staff can both formally and informally interact with Reif.

Before his presentation, Reif commented on one way people can be categorized. He said that there are some people who listen to ideas, and some who implement them. Throughout his career, Reif has considered himself as being a part of the latter group, but since his inauguration in July 2012, President Reif has moved to the listener group. “I’ve had my run. Now, it’s time to hear what others think,” he said.

This comment set the stage for his presentation, in which Reif encouraged the audience to share ideas that he can put in place as the MIT community “invent[s] the research university of the future.”

The presentation opened with the idea that we have reached a critical crossroads in education due to two fundamental issues in the current system: unsustainable cost for both universities and students. According to the president, at the moment, the cost for the Institute to educate a single undergraduate is on the order of $75,000 per year. With financial aid, the average student pays $20,000 per year. That leaves MIT with a net cost of $55,000 per undergraduate student, which, when scaled across the number of students at the Institute, is very significant.

One seemingly simple way to drive up revenue would be to charge more for admission, but as a first-generation college student himself, the president expressed his strong belief in the concept of education being available to everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status.

In the recent past, Reif suggested, the opportunity cost of forgoing a degree due to price has been very high: a lack of college degree can leave people with very limited options. However with educational technologies like edX and Coursera becoming increasingly accessible, Reif has identified these platforms as a serious threat to what he calls the “residential model” of higher education: students coming from financially constrained situations will “feel the pressure to forgo the price and get a degree online.”

Reif made a point to say that he used the word “threat” in describing online educational infrastructures not because of his personal investment in the residential system, but because of issues with the online system. With overwhelming support from students and community members in the audience, Reif said, the on-campus experience “incubates new leaders, is a well-spring of knowledge, and acts as a source of new courses for the online model.” While the online model has proven to be an effective way to instruct, it lacks essential elements required to educate.

One of Reif’s key ideas about why the residential system can retain its value is the research and entrepreneurial spirit that having an on-campus community of interacting undergraduates and graduates drives.“Our learning-by-doing and learning-from-peers culture is enabled by our research-based, entrepreneurial enterprise,” he said. “26,000 companies have been created by the 125,000 living alumni … this is an example of what makes MIT unique.”

Reif will be offering a number of sessions in the coming months as a part of his listening tour, along with monthly office hours that are open to any member of the MIT community. “MIT does well at everything,” Reif said. “I need to figure out how to maintain this, and make a difference when everything is done so well.”