In short, to stay true to our educational values, we must seize the opportunity
to reimagine what we do and how we do it.
—President L. Rafael Reif
On December 19, 2011, MIT announced a new venture, MITx, that would offer a portfolio of MIT courses through an online interactive learning platform.
MIT expects that this learning platform will enhance the educational experience of its on-campus students, offering them online tools that supplement and enrich their classroom and laboratory experiences. MIT also expects that MITx will eventually host a virtual community of millions of learners around the world.......
President Hockfield called this “a transformative initiative for MIT and for online learning worldwide. On our residential campus, the heart of MIT, students and faculty are already integrating on-campus and online learning, but the MITx initiative will greatly accelerate that effort. It will also bring new energy to our longstanding effort to educate millions of able learners across the United States and around the world. And in offering an open-source technological platform to other educational institutions everywhere, we hope that teachers and students the world over will together create learning opportunities that break barriers to education everywhere.”
Thus, MIT's leap into the then not-yet-named world of MOOCs from the outset has had a dual focus on how the growing field of online education could improve learning on its residential campus, and how MIT could project its education to new demographics. The perceived importance of MITx to the future of MIT was emphasized when President Hockfield stepped down, saying there were a few things on the horizon that would require decade-long leadership:
She cited an online-education program called MITx and a plan to refurbish many of the institution's century-old buildings.
This importance of MITx was further emphasized when Provost Rafael Reif, who lead the MITx initiative, was quickly appointed to succeed President Hockfield as the President of MIT.
MIT joined with Harvard in mid 2012 to form edX, which has invited a number of prestigious institutions from around the world to join (30 at present). This greatly increases the number of potential students, thus increasing the data that can be mined to determine what works and what does not work.
A recent draft report from MIT presents a surprisingly impressive picture of what MIT has been doing over the past two years to reimagine the residential campus in a time when online learning provides important new options.
Three working groups—each comprised of faculty, students and staff—have begun to envision how MIT can build on its legacy of innovation and reinvent the residential university of the future. (See Appendix 2 for Task Force membership.)
1. Working Group on MIT Education and Facilities for the Future
2. Working Group on the Future Global Implications of edX and the Opportunities It Creates
3. Working Group on a New Financial Model for Education
All of these groups presented very thoughtful and insightful reports that could provide valuable input for administrators and faculty everywhere as they consider options for the future.
For me, the most unexpected component of this report had to do with MIT education itself. The foundational concept that keeps repeating is modularity:
We define a module as a self-contained unit comprising a set of outcomes. An
outcome is what the student will know or be able to do as a result of a learning experience. Outcomes are intended to drive the instruction and assessment for the module. The size of modules can vary, ranging from an entire class to a portion of a class or a series of lectures. We propose here that a module is defined by its corresponding outcomes......
Offering smaller modules, each focusing on a set of outcomes, will permit students more flexibility in customizing their degree programs. This could be achieved
by creating new modules or by decomposing existing classes into smaller modules. Modules could be “vertical”—where module order matters—or “horizontal”—where there are multiple interchangeable orders of learning....
Currently it is possible for a student to fail a portion of a class and still achieve a passing grade (or even an A or B) in the class. When subsequent classes depend heavily on that prerequisite material, the student is ill-prepared to continue. Greater modularity in the curriculum would permit competency-based assessment—evaluation based on a student’s level of mastery on specific capabilities—which could be related to the outcomes comprising a module. This in turn could be used to guide a student’s progression through downstream modules.
The report suggests that modularity also can make it possible to better match media and pedagogy to the specific learning experience, and increase ability to interweave humanities and social science material and issues into the traditional technical education of MIT.
Increased modularity further enables an unbundling and rebundling of the traditional undergraduate experience:
Central to a well-rounded and high-quality education are the synergies that develop across concepts, courses, and disciplines. That is, an education is greater than the sum of its parts. Residential universities perform many functions in the education of a student, ranging from coursework to sports, and from labs to social activities. Digital and online technologies could enable these functions to be unbundled...Consider a university curriculum, for example. EdX represents an unbundling of the curriculum into individual courses. However, the unbundling can be much more extensive....
Possible benefits that could be obtained from more "extensive unbundling" are outlined, as well as the overarching challenge faced by the institution in the "rebundling":
Our challenge is to use our principles and values to guide us in establishing specific educational outcomes and a qualitative MIT culture to which we aspire. From there, flexibility brings to our students options—options to reduce or extend their time to degree, options to take a year off-campus to undertake research or get relevant professional experience in the middle of their studies, options to engage more deeply in service and teaching opportunities, and options to take classes online over the summer and streamline their programs.
Indeed, the report speaks of student using online courses while they are off campus doing such things as starting companies, gaining work experience, and performing community service - that is, testing and enriching their academic experiences through greater experience in the "real world". The online courses would enable the students to be off campus while not separating themselves from the learning environment of MIT.
This report describes some of the tensions within the MIT community over the ideas presented, and emphasises that this is the first step in a long process of discussion and evaluation. While many of the individual ideas described in the report already are being tried at other institutions, this report is notable for the scope of the changes being contemplated. It is, indeed, a very bold step for a major, highly successful, institution such as MIT.
I suggested earlier that MITx was a skunkworks - an incubator for the creation of new competencies that can be brought back into the organization to strengthen it. This report certainly helps to support that interpretation!