The Provost's MITx announcement stimulated a little buzz in the halls, but not nearly enough. 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.
Out of the buzz, limited as it has been, has come the whole spectrum of opinion. On one end you hear, “Distance education is when we pretend to teach and the students pretend to learn.” On the other end, “Our students have been online since kindergarten; much of what they have learned, they have learned in front of a computer; we have an obligation to work with them in cyberspace, along with fantastic opportunity to find new and better ways to engage with all their learning faculties.”
One comment focused on the distance part; the other on the online part, and the distinction is important. MIT has not announced it is getting in the distance education business – the Provost was very clear about that when he wrote:
"Many members of the MIT faculty have been experimenting with integrating online tools into the campus education. We will facilitate those efforts, many of which will lead to novel learning technologies that offer the best possible online educational experience to nonresidential learners. Both parts of this new initiative are extremely important to the future of high-quality, affordable, accessible education."
The global and distance-education part will be a natural by-product of doing the online part that we need to do anyway.
One argument is that going online will free us all up to have more one-on-one and small group interaction with our students. Perhaps, but maybe not. It may free us all up for more one-on-one and small group interaction with our graduate students. And it may not free us up at all. One senior faculty member speculated that going online, with a global component, will be 1,000 times more work than writing a book. It was not clear if he was using hyperbole.
A better reason to go online is that learning online is different, sometimes better, sometimes not as good. Watching a simulation of the earth turning red hot after a big asteroid collision is engaging and inspiring; watching someone speed-read PowerPoint slides in a lecture is soporific. What's new is that technological advances have gone beyond the threshold where online is not just a poor shadow of the real thing but rather a different thing with relative advantages and disadvantages, just as movies are different from live theater, with relative advantages and disadvantages.
Of course, the Provost is right. We have been experimenting – most conspicuously, from the online perspective, with OpenCourseWare, but also conspicuously with TEAL, and going way back, with the Education Division experiment; and less conspicuously in dozens of subjects taught in many innovative ways, many of which include impressive online demonstrations and tutors.
But we need more than individual initiative with individual subjects if we are to be in online education what we are in the areas of engineering, science, and the arts in which we do research.
Where might all this end up? Everyone is excited by or worried about the future because enormous change is within the envelope of possible evolutions, especially with the introduction of certificates.
Here is one example: It's 2030. Many other universities are on board and use our system to deliver their online education to whoever wants it, any time, anywhere, any place, at any pace, at any age, with a certificate for successful skill acquisition. Many smaller universities have become certificate schools and proudly advertise themselves as such:
No boring lectures ever. We help you put together a plan that educates you by the best and brightest from all over the world. You learn physics and computer science from MIT; philosophy and Sanskrit from Harvard. Art history from Yale. All our faculty live within a five-minute walk from the center of campus. They are always around to help you through the rough spots, to learn with you rather than teach you. And of course, we have a great emphasis on project-based learning. Once you have gotten through a combination of 32 certificates and projects, you graduate. We don't care how long it takes; take time off whenever you want.
And who's to say it wouldn't be a fine experience, better than that most students experience today? And it would be far less expensive, because someone else pays the star performers who populate the global subject catalog. It's the first real improvement in academic productivity since Gutenberg.
So what should we tell a prospective student about why it is best to have an experience at MIT, possibly an experience much like that offered at the certificate schools? There are at least three reasons, all of which have always been in place, none of which has to do with skill acquisition. First, you will be around people who are off-scale smart, just like you, which is humbling while you are here and empowering afterward. Second, you will develop a network of off-scale smart people you will carry with you for the rest of your life. And third, something or someone will inspire you in a way that will change your life.
Not yet anyway. And too bad we have no way of measuring the benefits of all those resident experiences other than anecdotally from our own experiences or the testimonies of others.
The future is murky, and change may happen fast: The 50-minute lecture may turn obsolete overnight, yielding to 12-minute video chunks; we may lead, or we may fall behind; we may resist, or we may embrace; but one thing is clear, we better not ignore.