MicroMaster's Pilot: An Experiment in
In 1861, the charter of MIT incorporated it as an Institute of Technology based on a school of industrial science. This was a tremendous novelty for the age, blurring boundaries between learning and doing, and ushering in an era of innovation and change in science, engineering, arts, and education. The choice between learning or doing was replaced by learning and doing: mens et manus.
Today, the tides of change are once again shifting boundaries among scholarship, industry, and education. The word “degree,” a key imprimatur of higher education, is being diluted. For example, AT&T and Udacity are now offering a “NanoDegree.” Traditional degree programs, core to the bastions of the Academy, are merging with the commercial world: Coursera and Google recently partnered with universities to launch online course sequences with capstone projects leading to “microdegrees.” Core concepts of educational attainment, such as the “credit hour” and “accreditation,” are being supplanted by networks of self-accrediting startups and companies, using competency measurements in lieu of “seat-time” for academic credit. And deals are in the offing with universities to accept such alternative credits, and adopt non-traditional degrees.
We believe that once again MIT has a unique role to lead in this change, and to enable a meaningful path for academe and industry.
As faculty members representative of the School of Science (Chuang & Sive) and the School of Engineering (Sarma & Flowers), we represent diverse perspectives and yet converge in our excitement at this moment in MIT’s history. (All four of us serve on the faculty advisory council for MITx and two of us, Sarma and Chuang, head the Office of Digital Learning.)
MIT holds several principles dear, including that: (1) merit is the key criterion for admissions; (2) MIT confers degrees to graduates who can impact the world – not just as thinkers but also as doers; and (3) residency is core to an MIT educational experience. To nuance the last point, we assert that there is a difference between training, which can be achieved by a number of means, including online, and education, which requires a deeper engagement through residency (see this article in the Faculty Newsletter). As industry struggles to meet job-oriented training needs in different ways, it is up to us to define what comprehensive education is – not by ignoring the clamor of a rapidly changing world, but by offering a creative vision of how our principles can be upheld through the use of digital learningtechnologies we pioneered.
The urgent challenge is: Are we able and ready, as an institution, to move forward decisively and lead in the midst of transformations of higher education? Can we move fast enough, and effectively enough, to demonstrate to the world how educational attainment can be better, faster, more accessible, while still preserving truths MIT holds dear?
A few weeks ago, MIT announced a pilot program to offer a MicroMaster’s credential – not a degree – in Supply Chain Management & Logistics, an existing professional Master’s program. This credential is earned by completion of a series of open online MITx courses on edX, and by passing a proctored comprehensive exam. Credential earners who excel in the online courses may then apply for competitive admission into the SCML Master’s program. Admitted students receive MIT course credit for their online courses (thus the moniker “inverted admissions process”), and come to MIT for one semester to complete and earn an MIT Master’s degree. This pilot affirms MIT’s commitment to residential education, extends MIT’s impact in the education of professionals, and reasserts merit as the primary criteria for admission.
The MicroMaster’s pilot is an experiment established in the best tradition of MIT. It reduces to practice Recommendation #11 from the final report of the Institute-Wide Task Force on the Future of MIT Education, realizing President Reif’s charge to “experiment boldly with ideas to enhance the education we offer our own students and to lower the barriers to access for learners around the world.” From its mid-2015 origination as an idea, moving forward with careful consideration to receive the blessing of the Academic Council, its presentation to the Faculty Policy Committee, and its provisional approval from the Committee on Graduate Programs, the MicroMaster’s pilot demonstrates a healthy ability for MIT to move decisively and thoughtfully forward with a meaningful experiment in education.
What will the future entail for MIT, degrees, credentials, and open online education? Let data from this and other educational experiments guide us. We owe it to the next generations of MIT students to employ the best, scientifically-based methods of education, to explore the most effective ways of recognizing merit, and to innovate incessantly at the boundaries of learning and doing, in the spirit of mens et manus.