MIT Just Changed Higher Education Forever — At Last

Yesterday MIT made a quiet announcement that could turn out to be a remarkable milestone in the history of modern higher education. MIT President L. Rafael Reif made the announcement, which is a sign that MIT itself knows how significant of a shift it has just made. As reported in the MIT Tech Review:

MIT is taking perhaps its biggest step yet to combine free online classes with its traditional on-campus instruction. The university announced Wednesday at its Solve conference that it will allow students to obtain one of its master’s degrees by doing half of the coursework online—from anywhere, for free, without any admissions tests—and then doing the other half in a single semester on campus.

This blended online-offline offering is an experiment: it will be available, at least for now, only for MIT’s one-year program in supply chain management. Nonetheless, it is a significant endorsement of the idea that massive open online courses, or MOOCs, will help reshape how universities operate.

Typically only about three dozen students are in the supply chain master’s program each year. But now anyone will be allowed to take the first semester of classes for free on edX, the online service that offers courses from MIT, Harvard, UC Berkeley, and other schools. Then, if their online coursework is good enough and they pass an exam at the end of the semester (by going to a proctoring center near where they live), they can earn a credential that MIT is calling a “MicroMaster’s.” If they want to go on to the second semester and earn the full master’s in supply chain management, they can formally apply. Having been granted the MicroMaster’s, MIT says, will “significantly enhance” their chances of gaining acceptance. The program will increase in size to make room for students coming in this way.

It’s important to take a moment to grasp the full significance of MIT’s “experiment” (a word I suspect they used to calm the rhetoric among the faculty who oppose the move to on-line education). MIT, arguably the world’s premier technical university, is saying that anyone — again, anyone — can sign up for accredited classes on line and, by passing a test at a local center, obtain an MIT advanced degree. Never mind that it’s a “micro” degree for now — that will disappear once the idea gains wider acceptance. In one step, MIT has basically said we don’t care about your GMAT scores, your transcript, your IQ, your ethnicity or your physical location: if you can do the work, you get the degree.

9780374534042.jpgFor years, I have been saying to academic friends and colleagues that the current model of higher education needs to be reinvented and that academics should look to classical music to understand what digital technologies will do to their world. It may seem odd to use classical music as a comparison, but bear with me. The best way to understand what I mean is to read a book called “Reinventing Bach,” by Paul Elie. In this fantastic work, Elie examines the various ways in which Bach was recorded and interpreted in the 20th Century. Along the way, Elie notes how the early days of recorded music struck fear into classical musicians who believed recordings would make them obsolete. Of course, the musicians were right and wrong. There are more professional classical musicians playing Bach than ever before worldwide; however, most people experience Bach through recorded media and not through live musicians. As he describes this hundred-year evolution, Elie makes two important points that have great significance to educators. The first is that it took more than half a century for recording technologies and techniques to be equal to the challenge of recording Bach well. In other words, it was impossible to foresee the future of recorded Bach during the first few decades his music was electromechanically reproduced. Likewise, it is impossible to see the future of digital learning in the early attempts we see today with MOOC’s or even pioneering entities such as Kahn Academy. The second point is that experiencing Bach through a recording did not diminish the music in any way — in fact it liberated it from mediocre musicians, badly tuned instruments and poorly designed concert halls. As Elie notes: “Via wax cylinder, 78, sound track, LP, stereo box set, CD or compressed digital file, Bach comes through…The more various our encounters with Bach, the more objective his genius is.” Continuing, Elie makes the critical point for educators: listening to Bach through modern technology “defies the argument that experience mediated by technology is a diminished thing.”

Elie is correct. I learned to play the piano because of Bach, and listening to his music in great recordings is no less wonderful than listening to it played live. Likewise, listening to a great lecture about anything from Homer to the intricacies of DNA is no less marvelous because it comes to me through a screen. Educators should all read Elie’s book and embrace the challenge that it presents: to move higher education from today’s “wax cylinder” present to tomorrow’s “digital streaming” future. As Elie notes, and MIT surely understands, the best ideas and teachers will successfully evolve through this coming transformation. Like Bach, the great discoveries and philosophies (and those who transmit and explain them) will not just survive but be enhanced in ways that are unimaginable today. Of course, we are a long way from the educational equivalent of today’s best recordings, but in time an “educational recording studio” will be built that will give educators the same possibilities for the recording and transfer of ideas that places such as Abbey Road gave to musicians. Moreover, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine a future which higher education is consumed mostly digitally and in which the best educators command a premium for the experience of teaching “live” in a physical classroom.

I, for one, welcome the next step that higher education is about to take. In fact, I have just been asked to teach a Masters degree course on supply chain risk next summer, and perhaps the most exciting aspect of the effort is that I can design the course in any way I like: fully “live” in the classroom or fully “recorded” digitally — or any combination that seems ideal.  I am sure I will make mistakes in my design, but the chance to push the teaching experience forward is a fantastic challenge.

Retuning to MIT’s announcement, I have no doubt that we are witnessing the beginning of the end of a system of education that goes back over a millennia to the eleventh century (the founding of universities at Bologna and Oxford). That system has served us well, but its time has come and gone. I hope other institutions of higher education will be inspired by MIT’s experiment and quickly follow suit. By doing so, in time universities may finally realize not just the universality of knowledge that their names have always promised but a universality of access that may be an even nobler goal.

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