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

MITx: MIT's Vision for Online Learning

L. Rafael Reif

On December 19, 2011, approximately 10 years after announcing OpenCourseWare, MIT announced its next step in opening our educational doors to the world. MITx is a new learning initiative that will publish online interactive courses, and offer learners the opportunity to earn certificates of completion. MIT OpenCourseWare was the genesis of today’s worldwide movement of Open Educational Resources, and MITx will follow in that tradition. MITx’s technology is envisioned to:

    • Organize and present course material to enable students to learn at their own pace;
    • Feature interactivity, online laboratories, and student-to-student communication;
    • Allow for the assessment of individual student work and enable students who demonstrate their mastery of subjects to earn a certificate of completion awarded by MITx; and
    • Operate on an open-source, scalable software infrastructure in order to support continuous improvement and make it readily available to other educational institutions.

Within the MIT community, the response to this announcement has been encouraging: many students, faculty, staff, alumni, and Corporation members are excited by the possibilities MITx presents. Outside MIT, the reaction has been similarly positive: strong press coverage has signaled both interest in and enthusiasm for what MIT might do in online learning, and we are receiving streams of inquiries from people and institutions eager to be a part of MITx.

With a great deal of work now before us, this article summarizes the rationale behind MITx and briefly describes how MIT is approaching MITx’s development.

Why Is MIT Creating MITx?

Three imperatives drive the creation of MITx.

First, MIT must always use or develop the best teaching and learning tools possible for our students. Toward that end, in 2007, we asked Daniel E. Hastings, Dean for Undergraduate Education (DUE) and Professor of Engineering Systems and Aeronautics and Astronautic, to explore the use of online technologies in our residential campus environment. Furthermore, the 2009 Institute-wide Planning Task Force included online technologies among its recommendations for residential and non-residential learners. Finally, in 2010 we charged MIT’s Council on Educational Technology, co-chaired by Dan Hastings and Hal Abelson, Class of 1922 Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, to identify opportunities to integrate online technologies into the MIT campus environment with the objective of enhancing the learning experience of our residential students. In addition, and simultaneously, we charged an ad hoc committee chaired by Dick K. P. Yue, Philip J. Solondz Professor of Engineering, with exploring an expansion, domestically and globally, of MIT's educational leadership, excellence and impact through the use of online tools, and the offering of certification to nonresidential learners. We believed it was important to carefully and thoroughly assess and brainstorm the role of online technologies with these two complementary objectives in mind.

These efforts provided the Institute insight into how digital technology can enrich learning. That insight led to the MITx concept and vision that now guides Anant Agarwal, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, as he leads the development of the open source platform and the posting of the first MITx courses. Moreover, once MITx is up and running, it will serve as a laboratory for online learning: MITx will offer new opportunities to study how people learn best online – whether those learners are our on-campus students, university students elsewhere, or non-university learners – and how virtual communities of learners are built. Studies like these will be part of an MIT-wide research initiative on online teaching and learning. Key objectives are to further enrich the residential learning experience and to learn about online learning.

Second, MITx offers MIT the opportunity to shatter barriers to education. Only a tiny fraction of the world’s population who are capable and motivated to learn MIT content has the privilege of attending MIT. We currently admit less than 10 percent of our undergraduate applicants: many more people have the capacity, motivation, and drive to learn our material than we can admit. At the same time, MIT content and knowledge are vast. They could be used to enrich and augment the education and livelihood of many learners who cannot attend MIT.

It is important to keep in mind that our campus residential model not only provides the best education environment to MIT students, but it is also at the heart of knowledge creation and dissemination. Without MIT, there is no MITx. Similarly, MITx is not MIT. Each offers a different educational environment and experience.

Third, MIT has the opportunity – and we feel that it has an obligation – to help preserve U.S. higher education as a public good by offering a not-for-profit option in online education. In the United States, we have dedicated public and private assets in enormous amounts to the public good of higher education. This commitment and dedication might change dramatically if privately financed, for-profit enterprises dominate the education-delivery vehicle of the future. MITx is a competitive alternative to proprietary higher education – and the time to establish it is now.

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The path ahead

At this writing, Anant Agarwal and his team are hard at work developing, in prototype form, the first MITx course. As MITx launches, it will feature three important characteristics.

Community: While MITx cannot hope to replicate the educational experience that is found on our campus, it will work to create a new kind of virtual learning community, an “infinite campus.” MITx will offer educators new ways of lecturing and doing demonstrations online, while also facilitating communication among learners. As learners begin to use MITx, we will learn how they connect and will work to ensure that connecting with others is a vital part of their experience.

Credentialing: The creation of an online learning platform provides the opportunity to allow students not only to learn, but also to demonstrate that they have mastered the content. Once we move out of the prototyping phase, we will begin to offer credentialing, at the level of the individual course, for a fee. We have not yet determined what that fee will be, but our objective is to make it affordable worldwide. We may create different pricing structures so that MITx is affordable in an equitable way to anyone in the world.

Open-source architecture: MITx courses will be built using an open-source software platform to allow our MITx development team as well as contributors from around the world to innovate and improve the platform infrastructure rapidly and build on each other’s work. This will enable the platform to evolve and support learning experiences that are as rich and effective as possible. In addition to helping the MITx platform thrive, the open-source software approach may prove valuable to learning institutions around the world, because all of them will be free to use the open software infrastructure for their own online content.

In the coming months, MITx will focus on the development of the platform and the implementation of our first prototype course. Detailed relevant policies will be formulated, and plans to expand MITx’s offerings will be outlined.

There is an enormous amount of work ahead of us, and we will not accomplish the entire MITx vision at once. Indeed, MITx will surely evolve over time in exciting ways that today we do not anticipate. The path ahead entails bold experimental risk-taking reflecting the best MIT values and culture. The objectives, if MIT achieves them, will dramatically improve the productivity of education and the access to quality education worldwide, and will transform the nature of our residential learning environment. These objectives are worth our efforts and commitment.

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