The benefits of MITx

Students should view MITx as an opportunity to engage in the future of online education

MITx has stimulated much discussion among MIT students, and seems to have divided them into two camps: the ones who believe that our degree will be devalued by the implementation of MITx and those who do not. In fact, the most likely outcome is that MITx will reap enormous benefits, both on campus and internationally.

Let us first acknowledge that students who learn information through lecture retain only about five to seven percent of that information. In fact, we can see this through MIT’s other experiment in education, TEAL, which lowered failure rates in 8.01 and 8.02, increased attendance, and, according to an article by professor John W. Belcher in a 2003 Faculty Newsletter, doubled the learning gains as compared to lecture. Let us also accept that MIT classes are taught largely through lectures. As such, it would seem that the MIT model of education is long overdue for a makeover.

Let us also establish a second truth: countless poor individuals throughout the world will never, ever have a shot at an MIT education purely as a function of the country or zip code they were born into. In addition, more education is generally a good thing; it leads to higher incomes and more benefits for the national economy. From the point of view of the United States, the more developed countries we have around the world, the less money we have to give to countries which desperately need it and the more partners we have in trade.

MITx is a venture which will jointly make a dent in both of these problems. The introduction of MITx will give access to MIT classes and information to students who would have never come close to it otherwise. It will also award them a certificate confirming that they have learned the information presented. Now, if the content of the online MITx is identical to the content of MIT, these certificates will indeed devalue the degrees that MIT students receive. This is why MITx will not happen in isolation. Rather, MIT will also use this as a golden opportunity to improve the education it delivers to students here, and this is what will prevent devaluation.

Under MITx, classes will move away from the pure lecture/recitation format. Instead, professors will take advantage of the information distribution capabilities of MITx and use class time to allow for more interaction and face-time between faculty and students and among students. If done right, this model can cut down on huge 400-person lectures and move to a model that looks more like a pure recitation or TEAL model, both of which have been shown to have greater educational gains. An example of this (by no means what has been decided) might look something like this: A student is assigned a lecture to watch and some basic problems designed to test purely understanding of the content. The next day, the student will go to class and engage in problem-solving, probing the content at deeper levels, and doing lab-like, interactive collaborations in teams of students and with the professor and TAs. While lectures might not vanish entirely, they will no longer be the primary use of scheduled class time at MIT.

Readers might note that not many details have been revealed regarding exactly what this new model will look like, only that it will cut down on lecture sizes and increase interactivity and collaboration at MIT. The reason for this is that the administration sincerely wants student input on this matter. They want to hear what you want your education to look like. How can we accomplish a shift in how MIT delivers its education to both improve the education you get by the time you’ve graduated and prevent the devaluation of our degrees? This is a unique turning point in MIT’s history, and it is something that students should be excited to shape and play a role in.

In fact the influence over this new model is something that may be larger than we can imagine today. Already, for-profit companies have begun compiling lectures and delivering them, but patenting them and making them far less accessible than MITx will be. If MIT does not do this, either for-profit companies will completely take over the online higher education market, or another university will leap at the opportunity to do an MITx-like system. The fact that MIT is the first to do this gives the MIT community a huge degree of influence over what the future of online higher education will look like.

Thus, we have two options before us: we can fight MITx tooth and nail, force it to fail, and then watch as Harvard, Princeton, or Yale creates its own wildly-successful version. Similarly, a for-profit company dominates and, 20 years from now, online content is inaccessible and costly. Or, MIT students and faculty can embrace the inevitable flow of progress and shape it; influencing future generations for years to come. As far as I’m concerned, only one of these views are logical, and I hope you will join me in embracing MITx and approaching your representatives, faculty, and administrators with your ideas and support.