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 under­graduates 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 established.
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 word.
Kevin Carey is policy director for Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington.