MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXIV No. 3
January / February 2012
A Contrarian View of MITx:
What Are We Doing!?
Freshman Advising and MITx
MITx: MIT's Vision for Online Learning
First Generation Project Launched
A Message from the First Generation Project Student Executive Board
We Gotta Have HOPE
FPC Subcommittee to Review IAP
Glass at MIT: Beauty and Utility
Memorial Service for Bob Silbey
Teaching this spring? You should know . . .
Under-Represented Minority Faculty and Students: 1987–2012
A Women as Percentage of Total Undergraduates, Graduate Students,
and Faculty: 1901–2012
Printable Version

Teach Talk

A Contrarian View of MITx: What Are We Doing!?

Woodie Flowers

I love MIT but confess being frustrated. The MITx announcement added to my frustration. As outlined below, I argued against OpenCourseWare (OCW) before it was announced. I was not persuasive and lost the debate. My view of how MIT should take advantage of the digital revolution was unusual then, but is more common now.

Twelve years ago, I wrote a book chapter for the Forum on the Future of Higher Education. That chapter, titled New Media’s Impact on Education Strategies, is posted here ( From the chapter introduction:

“Higher education should have a larger positive influence. A change in the basic vehicle used for learning, from archetypical courses, lectures and textbooks to interactive electronically portable media, could be the seed for positive change in our entire education system. These new media learning materials could enhance the academy’s contribution to society by improving learning efficiency and expanding higher education’s impact. Both the quantity and quality of learning could increase.

"Properly designed new media materials can improve K–12, residential, distance, and life-long learning. In their highly developed form, these learning materials would be as elegantly produced as movies and video games and would be as engaging as a great novel. They would be ‘smart’ to both accommodate the learners’ varied styles and yield data to facilitate their continuous improvement. Very popular and required topics provide the most attractive initial opportunities. For example, codified knowledge such as calculus or foreign languages would be most easily adapted to semi-automated training systems.”

I have given many presentations about a new education system. One example from 2007 was part of the Engineer of the Future Summit. At 25 minutes into the lecture, I focus on my dream system for education and training.

I believe that education and training are different. To me, training is an essential commodity that will certainly be outsourced to digital systems and be dramatically improved in the process. Education is much more subtle and complex and is likely to be accomplished through mentorship or apprentice-like interactions between a learner and an expert.

The “Holy Grail” of true education is exemplified by the professor-doctoral student interaction, UROP, courses like 2.009 Product Engineering Process, and the FIRST robotics competitions.

Education is the source of comparative advantage for students. Education is worth its cost. Person-to-person training often is not worth its cost.

To clarify a bit: Learning a CAD program is training while learning to design requires education; learning spelling and grammar is training while learning to communicate requires education; learning calculus is training while learning to think using calculus requires education. In many cases, learning the parts is training while understanding and being creative about the whole requires education.

In the United States, our “education” system is choking to death on a failed training system. Each year, 600,000 first-year college students take calculus; 250,000 fail. At $2000/failed-course, that is half-a-billion dollars. That happens to be the approximate cost of the movie Avatar, a movie that took a thousand people four years to make. Many of those involved in the movie were the best in their field. The present worth of losses of $500 million/year, especially at current discount rates, is an enormous number. I believe even a $100 million investment could cut the calculus failure rate in half.

Why not OpenCourseWare?

I argued that the program that became OpenCourseWare should have focused its original $100 million estimated budget on two topics. I suggested microbiology and electromechanical systems as examples. Had we done that, I believe we would have accelerated changing education. We decided, however, to assume that the world could hardly wait to see our huge pile of PDFs, PowerPoint presentations, classroom locations, teaching assistant lists, and other assorted bits of information about our courses. We now have a large database developing digital rot and becoming increasingly irrelevant. It is unlikely OCW will be systematically Facebooked, or Twittered, or HTML5ed, or deFlashed. It is an expensive and unsustainable “free” system.

We have spent about $40 million over 10 years. Powered by MIT’s incredible brand recognition, OCW has made an impact and been celebrated with awards. About seven years after OCW was launched, Salman Khan, our next graduation speaker, started posting a coherent, concise set of tutorials that were inexpensively produced but backed by a pedagogic philosophy. When I last checked Google Trends, the Khan Academy’s search hits exceeded OCW’s by an order of magnitude. Khan designed a product that teachers and students want and need. His modestly-produced presentations are used by millions. Starting with zero brand recognition, he has matched or exceeded OCW’s impact. What might we have done with $40 million, 10 years, and the most powerful technology education brand on the planet?

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Now MITx?

I believe the “sweet spot” for expensive universities like MIT is:
1) access to highly-produced training systems accompanied by
2) a rich on-campus opportunity to become educated.
MITx seems aimed at neither.

The administration presentation I heard focused on “easy” and “maybe during a summer” to design the online course through which we could sell badges. [SeeBadges’ Earned Online Pose Challenge to Traditional College Diplomas”a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that references the Khan Academy and MITx as examples of badge vendors.] There was no discussion of a commitment to quality, sustainability, or elegant production.

We seem to have decided to offer “courses” rather than participate in the exciting new process of replacing textbooks with more effective training tools.

Apple just announced their software system to support new-media texts. If they do for textbooks what iTunes did for music distribution, the tipping point will be passed.

All early indicators are that E. O. Wilson’s Life on Earth is the current gold standard for digital biology texts. The first two chapters are already offered through Apple’s new e-text system. These chapters are impressive. The entire text will require years of work by a talented team and already represents an investment of millions.

If I were a biology professor aspiring to publish a basic biology text, I would abandon the effort. Maybe having my MITx nonresidential badge seekers use Professor Wilson’s e-text would be my best bet for having an impact outside MIT. MITx, as I understand it, distracts MIT faculty from textbooks’ future.

As was the case for OCW discussions, holding the for-profit world at bay seems to be one of the unwritten strategic goals of MITx. One also hears whispers about getting ahead of other great universities.

I hope:

        • We will do nothing that is motivated by negatives.

          Our strategic goal will be to provide profoundly robust education to our students, not to beat another university at anything.
  • We will do nothing to undermine for-profit organizations that are trying to help educate young people.
  • We will compete based on the quality of the students’ residential experience.

Cultural inertia and capital investment will be our enemy. We tenure faculty for writing paper documents. We have thousands of lecture hall seats. Shifting to asking students to do things rather than just listen will be hard. The rooms are wrong. The schedules are wrong.

  • We will engage in both competition and cooperation with other institutions with similar goals.

MIT is in a powerful position to influence industry, governments, and other academic institutions to work together to develop systems that enhance education. Our hubris is getting in the way. How many of us would be enthusiastic about joining a project titled Stanfordx? How about sharing production teams rather than software platforms? Production costs are a bigger barrier than software. Society cannot afford massively redundant digital texts. We could divide the jobs among universities and industry partners.

Paper textbooks, 50-minute monologues, and passive learning are on the way out. We should be working toward making that transition as fast and efficiently as possible by working with, rather than against, others.

Our students face interesting lives. To offset what they consume, those in the developed world must be at least twice as productive as others. An education that doubles one’s effectiveness is a high bar. It must change mindset, convey information, and enhance creative thinking.

In 2000, during a fit of excess optimism, at the end of that book chapter, I wrote:

Imagine an article in USA SOMEDAY, October 21, 2010:

Somewhere, USA:Today Dr. Barbara Runningbear departed for Stockholm to receive the first Nobel Prize for Education. In an emotional send-off party, her faculty colleagues hailed her as a strong leader who courageously supported the University Learning Alliance’s (ULA) early entry into 21st century education. The ULA was described as the most powerful educational force on the planet, with over a billion e-text customers. Some students attending residential universities, especially in developing countries, claim to be influenced more by ULA than by the faculty at the university they attend. The celebration flowed into the streets as Dr. Runningbear boarded a limousine.

A Nobel Prize in Education? Why not? All other Nobel Prizes are the children of education.

I hope we get back on schedule and help restore the prestige once enjoyed by higher education.

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