The Wisdom and Process of Creating
a MicroMaster's Credential
President Reif announced a new pathway to MIT Master's degrees on 7 October, and referenced an MIT News account with a subtitle that says the new pathway “reimagines admissions,” and “introduces `MicroMaster's'.” We expect that President Reif, noting the world needs more leaders with MIT educational experience, wants to find ways to increase our output at every level. Many of us on the faculty, probably most of us, maybe nearly all of us, concur and want to help.
Issues of Input and Process
What we do not understand is why many of us first heard about the new pathway in the President's announcement. Others, who had heard about it, referencing MIT tradition, expected a full airing in a faculty meeting, with discussion and vote, before an announcement.
Certainly a full airing in a faculty meeting would have brought strong opinions to light, forced deeper thinking, and led to a better package. That is what should happen at faculty meetings. There might have been contention, possibly considerable contention, but plans would have been clarified, flaws would have been exposed, improvements would have been adopted, and all would have got on board with enthusiasm or at least would have experienced the acquiescence that comes with being heard.
We understand that the Faculty Chair went to considerable trouble to get the new-pathway package put before the Faculty Policy Committee, and we salute him for that. At the Institute Faculty Meeting on 21 October, however, he explained that he chose not to take the package further, to a faculty meeting, and stated that his decision was based on “tradition.” His presentation was too nuanced for us to summarize it fairly here, so we have asked him to clarify for us in an issue of the FNL. We hope he will explain why, if there is a likelihood that someone would care, we should let ill-defined “tradition” trump the guidance in Policies and Procedures and Rules and Regulations of the Faculty.
Concerns Over Impact on Education
In any event, there must be some limit on what “tradition” can excuse. Suppose the new pathway involved a replacement of all coursework by life experience; suppose the new pathway required spending only an IAP on campus.
Does the new pathway introduce elements about which someone cares? Does it go into territory not sanctioned by tradition? We think so. The new pathway introduces a new credential with the word “Master's” in it. To be sure, we give certificates to those who pass our MOOCs and XSeries certificates to those who pass various sets of our MOOCs, but the injection of Master's credential into the package takes certification to a whole new level.
Well, perhaps not a whole new level. If a Master's degree certifies that the recipient has mastered a subject, which generally takes a year or two, then a MicroMaster's certificate perhaps certifies that the recipient has mastered a millionth of something, which, if you do the numbers, should take 7 to 14 seconds.
But of course the real problem is with confusion and abuse. Many already seem to think the MicroMaster's is some sort of degree. Others will surely say they have a Master's from MIT without even lying, because they have, after all, a MicroMaster's Credential. Still others with real Master's degrees will be resentful.
We are saddled with a label that invites confusion, abuse, resentment, and ridicule.
So why did the label get past committees? Perhaps because it can take some days of reflection and conversation before resistance to or acceptance of an idea can override an initial impression.
Had the label, MicroMaster's Credential, been part of a proposed package to be discussed and then come after a week or so to the faculty at a faculty meeting, we think the faculty would have expressed strong objection to and disapproval of the MicroMaster's label. The package would have been a better package.
Concerns Over Novel Degree Programs
Of course the concern we raise here about the MicroMaster's label is merely representative, not exhaustive. Other concerns include: Should expansion of our professional degree programs be a priority? Are such programs peripheral to our mission? What limits should we place on using MOOC performance in admissions? Will companies have a heavy influence on who gets access? Should we be concerned about programs in which most of the teaching is done by instructors who are not professors? Is a single semester at MIT enough to absorb whatever it is about us we value? How will we provide oversight to programs with little faculty involvement? How will we measure success?
Another concern is the possibility that proponents of using MOOC performance in admissions will advocate deployment beyond our professional degree programs. Such a way of doing admissions would be a disaster if used, for example, in the undergraduate program. It would close the door for many underrepresented students who often lack infrastructure support for a year of MOOCing.
So let us innovate, change, reengineer, start over – all of that, but let us not hurry to announce ideas not tested as our guiding documents say they should be tested. Let us not fear to bring contentious issues to the sometimes stormy sunshine of our faculty meetings. Let us instead remember Winston Churchill's observation about the British form of government, with its often contentious question time and frequently fierce debates: “. . . democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Helen Elaine Lee
Patrick Henry Winston