MIT to Offer Free Online Training Leading to Certificates

Last month, a significant announcement in the world of education was made that might have slipped past those of us pre-occupied with the usual December to-do lists and tasks.

Working toward a spring 2012 deadline, MIT is making plans to offer its courses online to anyone in the world, for free. The online learning initiative, dubbed MITx, will not allow students to earn an MIT degree but those who demonstrate a mastery of the material will receive a certificate of completion. “Students using the program will be able to communicate with their peers through student-to-student discussions, allowing them an opportunity to ask questions or simply brainstorm with others.”

MITx (http://www.mitx.org/index.aspx) is the next step in free online education, which gives students the opportunity to interact with one another rather than simply watch a videotaped lecture. Once the program goes live, other institutions interested in expanding their online course offerings can be expected to follow suit: “Creating an open learning infrastructure will enable other communities of developers to contribute to it, thereby making it self-sustaining,” said an MIT press release.

In an article in the New York Times, Tamar Lewin wrote:

While students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology pay thousands of dollars for courses, the university will announce a new program on Monday allowing anyone anywhere to take M.I.T. courses online free of charge — and for the first time earn official certificates for demonstrating mastery of the subjects taught.

“There are many people who would love to augment their education by having access to M.I.T. content, people who are very capable to earn a certificate from M.I.T.,” said L. Rafael Reif, the provost, in a conference call with reporters Friday.

M.I.T. led the way to an era of online learning 10 years ago by posting course materials from almost all its classes. Its free OpenCourseWare now includes nearly 2,100 courses and has been used by more than 100 million people.

But the new “M.I.T.x” interactive online learning platform will go further, giving students access to online laboratories, self-assessments and student-to-student discussions.

Mr. Reif and Anant Agarwal, director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, said M.I.T.x would start this spring — perhaps with just one course — but would expand to include many more courses, as OpenCourseWare has done.

“The technologies available are much more advanced than when we started OpenCourseWare,” Mr. Agarwal said. “We can provide pedagogical tools to self-assess, self-pace or create an online learning community.”

The M.I.T.x classes, he said, will have online discussions and forums where students can ask questions and, often, have them answered by others in the class.

While access to the software will be free, there will most likely be an “affordable” charge, not yet determined, for a credential.

“I think for someone to feel they’re earning something, they ought to pay something, but the point is to make it extremely affordable,” Mr. Reif said. “The most important thing is that it’ll be a certificate that will clearly state that a body sanctioned by M.I.T. says you have gained mastery.”

The certificate will not be a regular M.I.T. degree, but rather a credential bearing the name of a new not-for-profit body to be created within M.I.T; revenues from the credentialing, officials said, would go to support the M.I.T.x platform and to further M.I.T’s mission.

Educators at other universities applauded the M.I.T. move.

“It seems like a very big deal because the traditional higher education reaction to online programs was, yeah, but it’s not a credential,” said Richard DeMillo, director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “So I think M.I.T. offering a credential will make quite a splash. If I were still in industry and someone came in with an M.I.T.x credential, I’d take it.”

M.I.T. said its new learning platform should eventually host a virtual community of learners around the world — and enhance the education of M.I.T.’s on-campus students, with online tools that enrich their classroom and laboratory experiences.

The development of the new platform will be accompanied by an M.I.T.-wide research initiative on online teaching and learning, including grading by computer.

And because the M.I.T.x platform will be available free to people around the world, M.I.T. officials said they expected that other universities would also use it to offer their own free online courses. Mr. Reif said that M.I.T. was investing millions of dollars in the project, and that it expected to raise money from foundations and others.

The project aims to “lower the existing barriers between residential campuses and millions of learners around the world,” the institute says. But how much will outside people get to interact with MIT professors? That’s unclear.

One way to promote such contact will be with software that handles many questions, said Anant Agarwal, director of the institute’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

“Through voting and other mechanisms, you can create a funnel of requests so that the requests that come off the funnel at the very top can actually be answered by MIT professors and MIT TA’s,” he said. “A large number of questions at the lower parts of the funnel can actually be answered by other learners who may be slightly ahead.”

MIT faculty members have also developed technology that can automatically grade essays. Other technologies that could come into play here include automatic transcription, online tutors, and crowdsourced grading.

The core idea of OpenCourseWare—free online content—has spread far beyond MIT. The institute hopes this project will also catch on elsewhere. To help make that happen, it will release the MITx open-learning software at no charge, so other educational institutions can adopt it.

 



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