Wednesday, December 21, 2011

MIT up the stakes in open education

Open online courses at university level are gaining momentum. There are the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) run by George Siemens, Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier and colleagues, a wide range of open courses facilitated by Peer 2 Peer University and now Stanford University's headline grabbing Artificial Intelligence course with over 50,000 students. They all offer exciting new arenas for collaborative learning and offer people a chance to participate in a stimulating and challenging learning environment. However none of them offer full university credentials - yet.

The free students on the Stanford course took the full course but were not eligible for university credits. Instead they received a certificate from the teachers but without the Stanford stamp of approval. P2PU are experimenting with badges as a means of acknowledging student achievement and this may well lead to new ways of giving credibility to informal learning. Several universities are experimenting with MOOCs but noone is putting their name on any grades.

MIT and Boston by opencontent, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  MIT campus by  opencontent 

Enter MIT. As pioneers of open educational resources MIT have been openly publishing their course material for several years now via the OpenCourseWare initiative and anyone can access it and work their way through the courses. However there has so far been no support from the university nor have there been any credentials on offer. This week came the announcement of the formation of a new online learning initiative called MITx (see article MIT launches online learning initiative). A range of courses are to be offered free via a new online interactive learning platform; the course material, virtual labs, assignments and study guides will all be available online and students study together as in many MOOCs. At the end those who pass will get an MITx certificate. It's not quite the real McCoy but the MIT name is there. They insist that assessment will be as rigorous as on the full campus version and the MITx certificates will not become short cuts to credentials. The full university experience is still number one for MIT but for many people MITx will be the next best thing. Plus you don't have to move to Boston to study.

It's part of a clear strategy to extend the global reach of MIT. According to MIT President Susan Hockfield:

“MIT has long believed that anyone in the world with the motivation and ability to engage MIT coursework should have the opportunity to attain the best MIT-based educational experience that Internet technology enables. OpenCourseWare’s great success signals high demand for MIT’s course content and propels us to advance beyond making content available. MIT now aspires to develop new approaches to online teaching.”

The learning software will be open and other educational institutions are free to develop their own versions. One aim of MITx may well be to use it as an experimentation area for new learning technologies and methods with students and other institutions contributing to development. One question that springs to mind is whether the MITx certificates will become more sought after than those from smaller universities. Is there a risk that the MITx label could in some places have more credibility than local certificates?

A two tier structure is emerging in higher education. The mainstream system with both campus and online courses and a parallell open system free to all but without the same level of tuition and support. The latter form is the university's contribution to global lifelong learning. This is the rationale behind another exciting initiative, the OER University, that is being launched by a partnership of 14 universities. The demand for higher education is growing so fast today that we simply can't build or staff enough universities to keep up. Offering these free open courses does not involve great costs to the university, does not compete with the core business but helps meet the global demand for higher education. Then of course there's a good helping of positive marketing for the university included in the deal.

Read more in an article in Inside Higher Ed, Advancing the open front.


  1. Hi Alastair,

    I'm a Swedish graduate student in "Adult Learning and Global Change" at Linkoping University. I'm following the MOOC "Change11" and decided to start a peer-2-peer course called "EduToolkit-Teachers Open Online Learning" on P2PU to be prepared for the next 'Black Swan'. We will try to formulate a rubric that illustrates increased level of knowledge and result in Badges for achievements.

  2. Interesting! I'd be happy to spread the word if you give me a link and more info.