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Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Accreditation

2009 Accreditation Report

Institutional Self-Study

10. Public Disclosure



In the domain of public disclosure, MIT's passage into the digital era has been guided by long-standing commitments to openness, accessibility, and community. Over the past 15 years, the availability of an inexpensive, interactive, and hyperlinked communication medium has forever altered traditional publishing—no less for universities than for other organizations.

 

I. CENTRALITY OF THE WEB

In 2005, acknowledging the impact of the World Wide Web, NEASC's Commission on Institutions of Higher Education added a new criterion to the accreditation standard for public disclosure. Paragraph 10.1 seeks to ensure that (1) "the information published by the institution on its website is sufficient to allow students and prospective students to make informed decisions about their education," and (2) "the institution's website includes [all] the information specified elsewhere in this Standard (10.2–10.13)."

Today, at MIT, nearly every academic and institutional department, program, office, center, and lab boasts its own website. More than 1,118,000 documents are hosted on MIT Web servers, responding to millions of hits daily from all over the world. Amid this flood, MIT has sought not only to continually improve the quality of its online communications, but also to leverage the unique opportunities presented by the Web.

OpenCourseWare (OCW), MIT's pioneering experiment in the open sharing of knowledge, is perhaps the most dramatic example. In just five years, beginning in 2002, core teaching materials—syllabi, lecture notes, assignments, and exams—from virtually the entire MIT curriculum (more than 1,800 courses in 33 academic disciplines) were published on the Web and made available to a worldwide audience free of charge. Since OCW's launch, more than 53 million people—61 percent of them outside the United States—have accessed these materials. MIT has also encouraged the development of translation sites (into Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, Persian, and Thai, among other languages) and provided more than 220 local copies of the OCW site to universities in bandwidth-constrained regions such as sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, the OCW example has sparked a global movement that today includes more than 250 universities around the world that together have published over 7,800 courses.

Within MIT, the proliferation of organizational websites has meant that anyone looking for the critical institutional information identified in paragraphs 10.2–10.13 of NEASC's public-disclosure standard can find it on a number of different sites. Appendices 5A and 5B provide the most relevant Web addresses. In keeping with NEASC standards, the Institute publicized opportunity for third-party comment through its homepage, news site, and accreditation website.

Overall, the trend at MIT over the past 10 years has been (1) for core print publications to develop online counterparts; (2) for the success of those online publications to result in the scaling back of some of the original print publications; and (3) for new digital resources to be created for exclusive publication on the Web. MIT's student handbook (http://web.mit.edu/mindandhandbook/), the IAP guide, listing the credit and noncredit offerings during MIT's Independent Activities Period (http://web.mit.edu/iap/), and the annual Reports to the President (http://web.mit.edu/annualreports/) are examples of former print publications that now reside exclusively on the Web. Examples of born-digital electronic publications include the MIT Organization Chart (http://web.mit.edu/orgchart/), which introduces MIT's senior administrative officers to their constituencies and the public, and MIT OpenCourseWare.

In 2007, a communications survey of the MIT community drew responses from 3,506 students (36 percent of the student body), 3,706 staff (45 percent of the staff), 336 faculty members (34 percent of the faculty), 1,414 Lincoln Lab employees (55 percent of the employees), and 2,918 alumni (37 percent of those invited to participate). Based on the survey results, Institute communications can be characterized as good, but there is significant room for improvement. Two-thirds (67 percent) of all respondents said they were either very or somewhat satisfied with MIT's efforts to keep them informed about the Institute. However, the information sources used to stay informed about MIT varied across the community, with MIT websites as the one common source used by all groups. There is broad agreement that the central MIT website should be improved and expanded so that it can be relied upon more in the future.

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II. ONLINE INNOVATIONS

In MIT's 1999 accreditation evaluation, the MIT website was criticized (albeit mildly) for not rising to the excellence expected from MIT as the supposed "center of the digital universe." Although the website was judged "adequate," the evaluation team found that its "components vary in format, design, content, presentation completeness, and quality. It is easy for outsiders to get lost." 39  In response, MIT promised to redesign the website as necessary to make it an effective source of information about the Institute and its programs. In 2002–03, a substantial redesign of the MIT homepage, together with some 275 secondary pages, began to fulfill this promise.

Driving the new design was a commitment to usability, community, and open communication. The site managers invited all viewers to submit images for the homepage, calling it an "open-source design" that celebrates the creativity and diversity of our community. Site usability was substantially improved by the installation of a new search engine, built by Google, that continually indexes the entire MIT domain (mit.edu) containing well over a million Web pages, PDF documents, Word documents, and Powerpoint slides. (Images are not indexed, as yet.) The result is a direct path to the content of MIT's many websites, letting users quickly bring up recondite documents, such as the MIT treasurer's report with the Institute's audited financial statements, or comb particular corpuses, such as MIT's annual reports from 1911 to the present, for keywords or special terms of interest—a boon to historians.

Respondents to the 2007 communications survey saw the MIT homepage as "the most valuable MIT online resource," with 47 percent of faculty members, 44 percent of staff, and 28 percent of students adopting it as the default homepage of their Web browser. (The alumni considered the Alumni Association website to be equally valuable.) But as expected, there were suggestions for improvements, including making the homepage more intuitive and visually appealing and improving the search function. Survey respondents, especially students, also indicated substantial interest in new communication technologies such as audio and video podcasting and blogs.

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Enhanced outreach

The MIT website is actually an interlinked domain containing hundreds of individual websites, some of them centrally administered. While the open culture celebrated at MIT has produced OpenCourseWare, MIT has also led the way in using Web tools to enhance outreach in other areas as well. Personalizing the admissions process has been one of the most successful. Today, prospective students are invited to register at the MyMIT website (http://my.mit.edu/), where they can apply for admission online. They also are welcomed to the MIT Admissions Web portal (http://www.mitadmissions.org/), featuring an array of blogs written by admissions and financial-aid staff members (including the financial aid director), as well as by current MIT students. Begun in 2004–05, the admissions blogs illuminate the admissions process from the inside and give down-to-earth glimpses of what it's really like to live and study at MIT. The site's indexed archive of 2,900 blog entries by MIT students already rivals, if not surpasses, the traditional admissions viewbook (which MIT still prints and mails to some 45,000 high-school juniors each year). For prospective students, probably the most compelling aspect of the site is the opportunity to join a community centered on MIT and chime in—asking questions, commenting, and, most important, enjoying a personal communication with someone at MIT.

Another area of successful outreach is MIT World (http://mitworld.mit.edu), the home of lectures without walls. Begun in 2001 as a video-streaming website of primary interest to the MIT community, MIT World serves an increasingly global audience (more than 90 percent of whom are situated outside the MIT domain), providing them with on-demand access to public events at MIT. Currently, the site holds more than 625 lectures and panel discussions videotaped at MIT and featuring engineers, technologists, scientists, inventors, historians, economists, astronauts, environmentalists, writers, artists, architects, and visionaries and thought leaders, including 29 Nobel laureates. About 115–120 new lectures are added annually, contributing to the more than 1.2 million screenings requested each year by viewers around the world. The top 10 videos at MIT World are listed in Appendix 5; many MIT World videos are also available without charge through Apple's iTunes U.

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Paperless publishing

In the past year, recent trends toward paperless publishing have accelerated at MIT because of a combination of factors—the wide acceptance of online technologies coupled with a critical need for budget reductions and environmental concerns. A growing number of MIT offices and programs are opting to publish their informational literature, such as newsletters, exclusively online. At the same time, print remains important for some offices, especially those with high levels of outreach activity, such as admissions, financial aid, and fundraising. In their experience, reference publications, such as a guide to the admissions process or a brochure describing student financial accounts, have a tangible concreteness in print that cannot be duplicated online—a value recognized by even the most wired. For offices like these, the perennial question remains how to achieve an appropriate mix of print and electronic publications in order to communicate effectively—and economically—with their diverse audiences. To explore these opportunities, MIT has convened advisory groups to evaluate communications programs on campus. Their work will include evaluating response metrics for print and Web to identify effectiveness while considering cost. In the months ahead, MIT will also explore technologies to streamline production and business processes related to the development and dissemination of communications.

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III. QUALITY ASSURANCE

Another perennial question is how best to maintain the accuracy of the information that MIT publishes each year. The procedure followed at MIT combines a traditional approach with modern tools. Critical institutional information—from MIT's mission statement and accreditation information down to the exact wording of its nondiscrimination policy—is checked and updated annually by a network of administrative officers in offices and departments across campus, each with responsibility for particular sections of the MIT Bulletin and related texts, operating under the supervision of editorial staff in the Reference Publications and Registrar's offices. Error checking makes use of electronic revision-tracking tools but ultimately relies on the paper-and-ink trail left on handwritten proofs—a precaution still regarded as indispensable for safeguarding the accuracy of MIT's official information.

Accuracy goes hand in hand with perceived quality, and improving the quality and effectiveness of MIT publications, both print and electronic, has long been an institutional priority. MIT's Publishing Services Bureau offers free consulting and procurement services to campus print and Web publishers, and additional Web design and development services (some of them fee-based), including a usability lab for website testing, are available from MIT's central IT department, Information Services and Technology. These groups encourage adherence to professional standards and are adept at helping MIT publishers meet those standards. Annually, they provide assistance to more than 1,200 print and Web publishing projects, about half the total number of such projects initiated each year at MIT.

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IV. MEASURING EFFECTIVENESS

Individuals who have contact with MIT occasionally offer praise or criticism of Institute communications, either via e-mail or in conversations with Institute personnel. Such random comments have value, but they don't provide measurable data. Therefore, MIT conducts periodic surveys like the College Board's Admitted Student Questionnaire, the MIT Parent Survey, and exit surveys from MIT's annual Family Weekend. Findings from these surveys help MIT's Admissions and Financial Aid offices to evaluate the effectiveness of the information they send to students and parents and to gauge MIT's performance relative to that of its peers. Results from the most recent surveys are available for inspection in the accreditation team room.

Some evidence of the success of MIT's website also comes from standard Web metrics measuring traffic volume (the number of page views). Qualitative feedback from users is scarce, because most university webmasters are reluctant to install pop-up windows or other devices to solicit visitor participation in online surveys. However, a few large campus surveys have asked members of the MIT community about their online experiences. OpenCourseWare surveyed all undergraduates to understand how to improve the OCW website and make it a more valuable resource for the MIT community. And the 2007 communications survey helped MIT appreciate not only the importance of the Web as a trusted information source relied on by all segments of the community, but also the interest in new Web technologies for delivering content and building community.

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V. PROJECTIONS

Management of the MIT homepage was transferred to the MIT News Office in 2007. To respond to the community's interest in new communication channels, the News Office embarked on a study of emerging technologies and social-networking media, with the aim of reengineering how MIT gathers and disseminates Institute news. A new MIT homepage and MIT News site with new functionality will be introduced in stages, beginning in September 2009. Meanwhile, rampant experimentation is under way with video-streaming sites (http://watch.mit.edu/), podcasting (http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/subscribe-podcasts.html), news feeds (http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/subscribe-rss.html), blogs (http://blogs.mit.edu/CS/blogs/), and wikis (https://wikis.mit.edu/confluence/dashboard.action). These tools offer a path for communication that is increasingly bidirectional, interactive, and fine-grained. The challenge for MIT is to adapt its communications to this new information environment as a means of fulfilling its mission to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century.

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Footnotes

39 Report of the NEASC 1999 Evaluation Team (available at http://web.mit.edu/accreditation/archive/1999/evaluation.html).