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Beryl Lieff Benderly

MIT for Everyone?

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, perhaps the world’s most celebrated and prestigious scientific and technological university, is also among the hardest to get into.  But now, according to an announcement made on 19 December, anyone anywhere in the world who has an Internet connection, the requisite intellectual ability and determination, and enough money to pay a “modest fee” can earn credentials showing “mastery” of coursework bearing the nonpareil imprimatur of MIT.  

This new program, known for the time being at least as MITx, will expand on MIT’s existing OpenCourseWare initiative, which for a decade has made “virtually all MIT course content,” including syllabi, notes, exams, and more freely available online.  

MITx will go far beyond OpenCourseWare.  It will provide not just
course materials but as-yet-unspecfied opportunities for “interactivity,
online laboratories, and student-to-student communication,” the
announcement says.  Anyone who wants to will be able to participate, no
admissions essay, astronomical grade-point average or sky-high SAT or
GRE scores required.  Most precedent-smashing of all, the program will
“allow for individual assessment of any student’s work” in each course,
with those who “demonstrate their mastery” of the material receiving a 
“certificate of completion.”  Only students who opt for “assessment”
will have to pay anything at all.
Earning such
certificates will not be equivalent to attending the great institution
in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the announcement emphasizes. Nor will MITx
courses count toward credits or degrees — not at MIT anyway.  But the
announcement predicts that some members of the “virtual community of
millions of learners around the world” will earn credentials that carry
one of the most prestigious academic brands on the planet.
Will
people unacquainted with academic niceties know the difference?  Might
such courses come to count toward degrees somewhere?  How will MITx
courses differ from the online courses already offered by a range of
less-celebrated institutions?  How will MITx’s academic standards
compare with those at brick-and-mortar MIT?  What uses will certificate
holders be able to make of them to advance in their studies or careers?
 Might some employers even prefer to hire job seekers who have shown the
gumption, initiative, and self-discipline to succeed at MIT-level
studies on their own, be it in their suburban basement or tenement
apartment or Developing World village, over applicants who took the more
conventional route of attending classes on a regular campus? As Audrey
Watters observes in Inside Higher Ed,  “The
implications of MITx could be staggering, …particularly as there’s
been so much talk lately about what a college degree is really ‘worth.'”

A
great deal about MITx and its ultimate influence on education are not
yet clear and won’t become clear for some time after the program
launches, in what the announcement calls “the spring 2012 timeframe”
with a “portfolio of selected courses,” not the complete range of
subjects already available through OpenCourseWare.  The MITx curriculm
will “grow over time.”  So, one suspects, will the influence and
implications of this potentially revolutionary initiative.