For Wall Street Occupiers or other decriers of the “social injustice” of college tuition, here’s a curveball bound to scramble your worldview: a totally free college education regardless of your academic performance or background. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) will announce on Monday that they intend to launch an online learning initiative called M.I.T.x,which will offer the online teaching of M.I.T. courses free of charge to anyone in the world.
The program will not allow students to earn an M.I.T. degree. Instead, those who are able to exhibit a mastery of the subjects taught on the platform will receive an official certificate of completion. The certificate will obviously not carry the weight of a traditional M.I.T. diploma, but it will provide an incentive to finish the online material. According to the New York Times, in order to prevent confusion, the certificate will be a credential bearing the distinct name of a new not-for-profit body that will be created within M.I.T.
The new online platform will look to build upon the decade-long success of the university’s original free online platform, OpenCourseWare (OCW), which has been used by over 100 million students and contains course material for roughly 2,100 classes. The new M.I.T.x online program will not compete with OCW in the number of courses that it offers. However, the program will offer students a greater interactive experience.
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, while also being able to access online laboratories and self-assessments. In the future, students and faculty will be able to control which classes will be available on the system based on their interests, creating a personalized education setting.
M.I.T.x represents the next logical evolution in the mushrooming business of free online education by giving students an interactive experience as opposed to a simple videotaped lecture. Academic Earth (picked by Time Magazine as one of the 50 best websites of 2009) has cornered the market on free online education by making a smorgasbord of online course content – from prestigious universities such as Stanford and Princeton – accessible and free to anyone in the world. Users on Academic Earth can watch lectures from some of the brightest minds our universities have to offer from the comfort of their own computer screen. However, that is all they can do: watch. Khan Academy, another notable online education site, offers a largely free interactive experience to its users through assessments and exercises, but it limits itself to K-12 education. By contrast, M.I.T.x will combine the interactivity of the Khan Academy with the collegiate focus of Academic Earth, while drawing primarily from M.I.T.’s advanced course material.
“M.I.T. has long believed that anyone in the world with the motivation and ability to engage M.I.T. coursework should have the opportunity to attain the best M.I.T.-based educational experience that Internet technology enables,” said M.I.T. President Susan Hockfield in the university’s press release.
According to the university, residential M.I.T. students can expect to use M.I.T.x in a different way than online-only students. For instance, the program will be used to augment on-campus course work by expanding upon what students learn in class (faculty and students will determine how to incorporate the program into their courses). The university intends to run the two programs simultaneously with no reduction in OCW offerings.
According to the New York Times, access to the software will be free. However, there will most likely be an “affordable” charge, not yet determined, for a credential. The program will also save individuals from the rigors of the cutthroat M.I.T. admissions process, as online-only students will not have to be enrolled in the prestigious, yet expensive, university to access its online teaching resources.
Those chomping at the bit to dive into M.I.T.x will have to wait, as the university doesn’t plan to launch a prototype of the platform until the spring of 2012. According to M.I.T. Provost L. Rafael Reif and Anant Agarwal, director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, the prototype might include only one course, but it would quickly expand to include many more courses.
Once launched, M.I.T. officials expect the M.I.T.x platform to be a giant hit amongst other universities looking to create or expand upon their online course materials. “Creating an open learning infrastructure will enable other communities of developers to contribute to it, thereby making it self-sustaining,” said Agarwal in the M.I.T. press release.
Whether M.I.T.x will directly threaten the margins at for-profit online universities, such as the University of Phoenix, APUS, or DeVry remains to be seen. But as M.I.T.x starts to provide many of the salient virtues of for-profit online colleges, such as a robust learning management systems and real-time virtual interaction, these publicly traded education companies might have to lower fees in order to compete with M.I.T.x’s compelling free price. In addition, the success of M.I.T.x, OCW, and Academic Earth may push dramatic technological innovation at for-profits, so that they can maintain a unique selling proposition versus their free competitors. Moreover, as the rapidly growing number of what are termed “self educators” choose free college education, a cottage industry of social media support services might evolve to bring them together for free in-person study and help sessions.
Which is all to say that, against this country’s sizable need for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) graduates, M.I.T.x is nothing short of revolutionary. This is especially true if you aren’t a credential freak and, like me, just want to improve your chops in a marketable subject area. Heck, maybe Gene Marks’ (“If I Were a Black Kid”) tech-based view of education can become a reality after all.