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A big announcement from MIT today: the university is launching a new online learning initiative, MITx, one that will allow non-enrolled students to take online courses and receive certification if they successfully complete them.

MIT has long been known for being on the leading edge of higher education experimentation, most notably with MIT OpenCourseware. The decision by MIT faculty to make all of their course materials freely and openly available online is now a decade old, and some 100 million people have downloaded and accessed that content.

But even with a catalog that boasts over 2,000 courses, MIT OCW has always been just that: courseware. All the syllabi, handouts, and quizzes, but no interaction with professors, no interaction with fellow learners, no grades, no college credit.

MITx will act as a middle tier, of sorts, something between the traditional, on-campus experience of formally enrolled MIT students and the open and informal learning opportunities afforded by open courseware. But "this is not MIT light,” insists Provost L. Rafael Reif.

What MITx is is still very much under construction. The first class should be available in the spring of 2012, and it's not clear what course(s) will be offered (although it's a probably a safe bet that it's a science or engineering class). MIT describes MITx as a self-paced course, one with "interactivity, online laboratories and student-to-student communication." While the course itself will be free (and the custom-created course materials will be openly licensed, as with all MIT courses), students who wish to be graded will be able to pay for certification.

There's no indication yet of what that fee will be. Nor is it clear how assessment for MITx will work -- will all students take quizzes and submit homework or just those who are paying for certification? Will students have access to instructors? If so, how? It does seem likely that, as in the recent online courses offered by Stanford, much of this grading process will be automated. That's particularly important if MITx is to scale (particularly if it's to match the mind-blowing enrollment numbers of the Stanford CS classes).

MIT says that it plans to open-source the software infrastructure it's developing for MITx. Anant Agarwal, the director of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), who is leading the effort to develop the MITx platform, says that “An open infrastructure will facilitate research on learning technologies and also enable learning content to be easily portable to other educational platforms that will develop. In this way the infrastructure will improve continuously as it is used and adapted.”

That could mean that, just as other universities followed MIT's footsteps by opening their courseware, we will see schools offering similar online certification opportunities. (It's worth noting here that this isn't a degree or even credit from MIT. The university says that it's creating a "not-for-profit body within the Institute that will offer certification for online learners of MIT coursework. That body will carry a distinct name to avoid confusion.") 

The implications from MITx could be staggering, I think, particularly as there's been so much talk lately about what a college degree is really "worth." And as such I have a lot of questions:

Will these certificates carry the weight of a college degree? Will schools need to have the same sort of brand-name (Ivy League-like) recognition as Stanford and MIT to give alternative certification efforts sufficient appeal or cachet? Will the efforts of MIT push other universities to rethink certification?

And how will this impact open courseware efforts? Is this a complementary move (for MIT OCW and for other schools)?  Will building a system that helps design course materials for online learning and better supports peer-to-peer learning opportunities help address some of the shortfalls of open content (i.e., it's stagnant, it's just PDFs, it's just videotaped lectures, etc.)?

Whatever the answers, it seems apparent that with the explosion of online, informal learning opportunities, with projects like Mozilla's Open Badges, and now with MITx, I predict we're just beginning to see how learning institutions plan to experiment with both credentialing and with monetizing (open) course content.

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