Education, disrupted: MIT to offer free, online courses to all

Massachusetts Institute of Technology will be launching online courses free and open to millions of students around the world.

The disruption of higher education just got very interesting. It appears that the disruptors -- private, online universities -- are being disrupted at their own game. One of the pantheons of traditional on-site learning, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has announced it will be launching online courses that will be free and open to the world. And, in the process, plans to offer certificates to students successfully completing the coursework.

The program, called MITx, will represent the next evolution in online offerings, extending the university's already well-established OpenCourseWare, which provides materials on about 2,100 courses that has been accessed by more than 100 million people. OpenCourseWare will continue, but MITx will be more interactive and provide a greater virtual classroom experience, providing access to online laboratories, student-to-student discussions, and greater interactivity. MIT also expects that MITx will eventually host a virtual community of millions of learners around the world.

The new initiative matches a similar one now underway at Stanford University, in which professors ran three open, online courses this past fall semester, and will expand the program to include 10 more computer science classes beginning next month, including launching startups, technology entrepreneurship, software as a service, natural language processing, and human-computer interaction.

Unlike the latest MIT initiative, Stanford does not offer certificates for completion of the coursework -- instead, non-matriculated students receive statements of accomplishment signed by the instructors. MIT indicates that it may charge a small fee for the credential, which would go to funding the program. MITx will be managed as a non-profit activity also supported by foundations, companies and individuals, the university says. A not-for-profit body will be created within the university that will offer the certifications, and that body will carry a distinct name to avoid confusion.

MIT also intends to make the MITx open learning software available free of cost, so that others — whether other universities or different educational institutions, such as K-12 school systems — can leverage the same software for their online education offerings.

The university hopes the program will expand through the community effect, says Anant Agarwal, an MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). “Creating an open learning infrastructure will enable other communities of developers to contribute to it, thereby making it self-sustaining,” he says. “An open infrastructure will facilitate research on learning technologies and also enable learning content to be easily portable to other educational platforms that will develop. In this way the infrastructure will improve continuously as it is used and adapted.” Agarwal is leading the development of the open platform.

Beyond the MIT campus, MITx will endeavor to break down barriers to education in two ways, according to program organizers. First, it will offer the online teaching of MIT courses to people around the world and the opportunity for able learners to gain certification of mastery of MIT material. Second, it will make freely available to educational institutions everywhere the open-source software infrastructure on which MITx is based.

Perhaps this may be a turning point for introducing market forces to the spiraling upward costs of higher education -- often called the "education bubble." Writing in Forbes, James Marshall Crotty speculates that the private online universities may start getting a run for their money, and may need to start pushing down their tuition rates to remain competitive. This effect may spill over across educational institutions of all stripes, of course. Crotty also predicts that a cottage industry of "social media support services" might emerge to support a growing number of self-learners, or individuals putting together their own curricula, using resources from across the education spectrum.

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