Task force releases new report on MIT education

Future of MIT’s academics, edX, & finances

In an email to the MIT community yesterday, President L. Rafael Reif released the preliminary report of the Institute-wide Task Force on the Future of MIT Education. Last February, Reif charged the Task Force to explore “bold” possibilities of the future of MIT education both on campus and for those around the world, in addition to evaluating MIT’s financial model and pricing structures. The work was split among three working groups, focused on the future of the MIT education and facilities, the global implications of edX, and a new financial model for education.

The future MIT graduate

The future MIT graduate needs good communication skills, the report emphasized. In particular, it cited that MIT students’ communication skills lag behind those of their peers. The task force suggests that, in addition to encouraging smaller class sizes, MIT should motivate faculty to engage with students outside of their field of expertise. Additionally, building on the success of UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program), piloting an Undergraduate Teaching Opportunities Program and Undergraduate Service Opportunities Program would further enhance the communication skills of future MIT students.

More flexibility

The task force also considered the possibility of a more flexible curriculum. “Now really seems to be a time for us to think about introducing flexibility into education,” said Karen E. Willcox PhD ’00, a co-chair of the task force and a professor and associate department head in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Currently, some ideas under suggestion include expanding SB/MEng programs, offering credit for taking MITx classes, and more modularity with the GIRs. However, that flexibility must dealt with carefully: “The challenge is how do we put a structure in place here at MIT that permits that kind of flexibility, but holds true to our principles and values that, at the end of the day, MIT graduates would be proud of,” said Willcox.

More collaborative spaces

In addition to academic changes, the preliminary report addresses campus environment. To deal with the increased ability for students to skip lecture by simply watching them online, the future campus environment may well be in the form of “academic villages” and “maker spaces.” Academic villages would comprise of classrooms, breakout spaces, study spaces, labs, and faculty offices, among other types of academic and study spaces. According to the report, these villages would “promote serendipitous interactions between students and faculty members, inviting and attracting students and faculty to link and work in the academic areas of campus rather than withdrawing to their more distant living spaces.” Maker spaces would be more intended to promote creativity, similar to the existing Hobby Shop or Edgerton Shop. Such maker spaces are also a focus in the Innovation Initiative, the vision for which included spaces for students to “create products” and “spin off companies.”

Implications of edX

The report also highlighted opportunities that edX could bring to the table. Not only is it a vehicle of disseminating knowledge to the world, it also introduces MIT to people who otherwise would not have, vise versa. For example, the task force cited a recent admit from Mongolia, who used edX extensively and received mentorship from MIT alumni. According to Sanjay Sarma, a co-chair of the Task Force and Director of Digital Learning, edX allows one to “rebuild the university around the individual.”

“Just as you can make a playlist out of songs from different albums, they can take this class and that class, and they can go to a local university and maybe do a lab there, and maybe find a member that becomes their equivalent of a professor there,” said Sarma, highlighting the possibilities for the edX student.

According to the report, MIT students can benefit from this unbundling by participating in teaching worldwide or engaging in more extensive fieldwork while taking classes from MITx. Willcox suggested that students may be able to spend a semester interning at a company, all while completing MIT classes online.

Future financial model

The sustainability of the Institute’s existing financial model cannot be ignored in light of all of the proposed academic possibilities. The preliminary report highlights that the existing financial model of MIT has been extremely successful. It cites that the value of an MIT education remains high, with the average starting salary generally exceeding the median U.S. family income.

However, the report cites significant challenges with the future sustainability of its current revenue mix, with constrained federal research dollars, an endowment subject to volatile market conditions, growing campus size, and the need of recruiting top talent.

Currently, MIT receives about $2.2 billion in campus revenues, which excludes $891 million in revenue received from research at the Lincoln Laboratory. The majority is from research and endowment investments, which together account for $1.25 billion or 56 percent of total operating revenues. Tuition payments from all schools account for 14 percent of yearly revenues, totaling $310 million.

The third working group suggested many solutions to future risks. Some potential revenue opportunities cited are expanding summer programs and executive education, and potentially monetizing edX. In addition, there is the potential to expand in technological licensing activities. However, many of these opportunities also are “fraught with potential conflicts of interest.” Therefore, according to the report, “this risk must be carefully weighed against any benefits from entrepreneurship.”

“What I would expect is that we can keep investing back in even more generous financial aid,” said Israel Ruiz SM ’01, a co-chair of the Task Force and Executive Vice President and Treasurer of MIT.

The final report by the Institute-wide Task Force on the Future of MIT Education is expected to be released at the end of the academic year in June 2014.

Leon Lin contributed reporting.