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Topic: [ncsm-members] MIT Mints a Valuable New Form of Academic Currency
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Jerry P. Becker

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Registered: 12/3/04
[ncsm-members] MIT Mints a Valuable New Form of Academic Currency
Posted: Jan 26, 2012 5:20 PM
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From The Chronicle of Higher Education, Friday, January 27, 2012. See
MIT Mints a Valuable New Form of Academic Currency

By Kevin Carey

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has invented or improved
many world-changing things-radar, information theory, and synthetic
self-replicating molecules, to name a few. Last month the university
announced, to mild fanfare, an invention that could be similarly
transformative, this time for higher education itself. It's called
MITx. In that small lowercase letter, a great deal is contained.

MITx is the next big step in the open-educational-resources movement
that MIT helped start in 2001, when it began putting its course
lecture notes, videos, and exams online, where anyone in the world
could use them at no cost. The project exceeded all expectations-more
than 100 million unique visitors have accessed the courses so far.

Meanwhile, the university experimented with using online tools to
help improve the learning experience for its own students in
Cambridge, Mass. Now MIT has decided to put the two together-free
content and sophisticated online pedagogy?-and add a third, crucial
ingredient: credentials. Beginning this spring, students will be able
to take free, online courses offered through the MITx initiative. If
they prove they've learned the material, MITx will, for a small fee,
give them a credential certifying as much.

In doing this, MIT has cracked one of the fundamental problems
retarding the growth of free online higher education as a force for
human progress. The Internet is a very different environment than the
traditional on-campus classroom. Students and employers are rightly
wary of the quality of online courses. And even if the courses are
great, they have limited value without some kind of credential to
back them up. It's not enough to learn something-you have to be able
to prove to other people that you've learned it.

The best way to solve that problem is for a world-famous university
with an unimpeachable reputation to put its brand and credibility
behind open-education resources and credentials to match. But most
world-famous universities got that way through a process of
exclusion. Their degrees are coveted and valuable precisely because
they're expensive and hard to acquire. If an Ivy League university
starts giving degrees away for free, why would everyone clamor to be
admitted to an Ivy League university?

MIT is particularly well suited to manage that dilemma. Compared with
other elite universities, MIT has an undergraduate admissions process
that is relatively uncorrupted by considerations of who your
grandfather was, the size of the check your parents wrote to the
endowment, or your skill in moving a ball from one part of a playing
field to another. Also in marked contrast to other (in some cases
highly proximate) elite institutions, MIT under?graduates have to
complete a rigorous academic curriculum to earn a degree. This means
there should be little confusion between credentials issued by MIT
and MITx. The latter won't dilute the value of the former.

MIT is also populated by academic leaders with the better traits of
the engineer: a curiosity about how things work and an attraction to
logical solutions. So MITx will be accompanied by a campuswide
research effort aimed at discovering what kinds of online learning
tools, like simulation laboratories and virtual-learning communities,
are most effective in different combinations of subject matter and
student background. MITx courses will also be delivered on an "open
learning platform," which means that any other college or
higher-education provider will be able to make its course available
through the same system.

The university is fortunate to have faculty who are comfortable
working with technological tools and eager to try out new educational
methods. Professors in the MIT Computer Science and Artificial
Intelligence Laboratory (Csail) are already experimenting with ideas
like "crowdsourced" grading of computer programs, in which qualified
Web users comment on student work. MIT also plans to retool its
lecture videos to make them interactive and responsive to students'
academic progress. Anant Agarwal, director of Csail and a leader of
the MITx effort, notes that "human productivity has gone up
dramatically in the past several decades due to the Internet and
computing technologies, but amazingly enough the way we do education
is not very different from the way we did it a thousand years ago."

Most important, MITx is animated by a sense of obligation to maximize
human potential. Great research universities have vast abilities to
distribute knowledge across the globe. But until recently, they have
been highly limited in their ability, and willingness, to distribute
authentic education. Before the information-technology revolution,
the constraints were physical-you can fit only so many people in
dorms and classrooms along the Charles River.

The Internet has ripped those barriers away. As MIT's provost, L.
Rafael Reif, observes, "There are many, many learners worldwide-and
even here in the United States-for whom the Internet is their only
option for accessing higher education." Reif emphasizes that the
courses will be built with MIT-grade difficulty. Not everyone will be
able to pass them. But, he says, "we believe strongly that anyone in
the world who can dedicate themselves and learn this material should
be given a credential."

This sensible and profound instinct sets a new standard for behavior
among wealthy, famous universities. Elite colleges all allege to be
global institutions, and many are known around the world. But it is
simply untenable to claim global leadership in educating a planet of
seven billion people when you hoard your educational offerings for a
few thousand fortunates living together on a small patch of land.

There are also practical advantages for MIT in moving first. Already,
the elite Indian Institutes of Technology has announced plans to join
MIT's open-education consortium. Building MITx on an open platform
could make the university the global nexus of online higher
education, which is the way most people are likely to access higher
learning in the future. In the hunt for the best and brightest
students around the globe, MIT won't need to guess who's in the top 1
percent of 1 percent-it can simply pick them out of the millions of
students who will enroll in MITx.

Meanwhile, it will be fascinating to watch MITx mint a brand-new form
of academic currency. What happens when it enters circulation? Will
other universities accept it as transfer credit, or employers as
proof of skills? How will those credentials affect the fast-growing
market for online credits and degrees, much of which is driven by the
expensive for-profit sector?

There is, of course, a great deal of work to be done before those
plans are fully realized. University officials emphasize the need to
monitor the results of the new classes to make sure the learning
experience is up to par. Prices for students in impoverished regions
will have to be worked out and protocols for minimizing fraud

But those are practical problems that can be solved with time,
ingenuity, and experimentation. The real innovation of MITx, the
breakthrough that may eventually put it among the pantheon of MIT's
achievements, is the generosity inherent in a privileged university's
giving away something that it could easily keep for itself. It is the
act of a truly educational institution, in the finest sense of the
PHOTO SIDEBAR: BY James Yang for The Chronicle
Kevin Carey is policy director for Education Sector, an independent
think tank in Washington.
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244
E-mail: jbecker@siu.edu

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