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Forget free content repositories; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology wants to deliver “interactive” elite education to the masses, complete with credentials certifying “mastery” of MIT-grade coursework.

In the latest boon for the “open education” movement, the engineering mecca on Monday announced a new online learning initiative, called MITx, that will give anyone the opportunity to work through MIT course material and earn a certificate of achievement.

The university’s announcement (and accompanying FAQ) did not contain much in the way of specifics. It is not known what courses, or how many, will be available when MITx goes live in the spring. Still, for open-education advocates it was an optimistic coda to a year that also saw a promising experiment in “massive open online courses” at Stanford University and a cotillion for the smorgasbord of free tutorials and mastering software at Khan Academy.

MIT, which pioneered the “open educational resources” (OER) movement a decade ago when it began publishing its course materials free online, could push the needle further than either Stanford or Khan. The university plans to build a sophisticated learning platform that could help close the credibility gap between traditional higher education and its growing subculture of tuition-free alternatives.

MITx aims to let thousands of online learners take laboratory-intensive courses, while assessing their ability to work through complex problems, complete projects, and write cogently about various concepts, says Anant Agarwal, the director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

The key, Agarwal says, will be applying the estimable brainpower of its faculty to the problem of how to replicate those more advanced learning experiences online, and at scale.

As it turns out, MIT professors have been working on this problem on their own for years. Agarwal says his colleague Robert Miller, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, has devised a system of crowdsourcing the grading of essays to a network of MIT alums -- a technique that offers at least some scalability beyond the powers of the professor and his teaching assistants. And while computer programs might be at a loss to assess the virtues of creative writing, the technical nature of engineering essays could make that genre at least somewhat susceptible to automated grading, Agarwal says.

For his part, Agarwal has developed a simulator that can teach online students how to apply the principles of electronic circuitry in laboratory conditions.

“Labs have been one of the bigger challenges in terms of online learning,” he says. “We hope to offer online laboratories where students will be able to interact with the typical kinds of components that you encounter in a [physical] lab.” Certain sensory cues -- the sparks, the smells -- might be absent in a virtual lab, but simulators can be programmed to imitate equipment failures and other contingencies that must be accounted for when dealing with live gear, Agarwal says. And while virtual lab equipment is less authentic, it is also much cheaper than the real thing, “so it scales better,” he adds.

“At the end of the day, a simulation may not completely replicate a real live lab experience,” says Agarwal. “But it can come pretty close.”

From Credential to Credit

Among the “open courseware” projects at elite U.S. institutions, MITx will be the first to offer an institutional credential -- albeit not from MIT proper but from MITx, which will exist as a nonprofit apart from the university. (The Stanford professors who offered an interactive open course in artificial intelligence to all comers in the fall plan to send each non-enrolled student a certifying letter with their cumulative grade and class rank, but Stanford itself is not recognizing them.)

But MIT stamp or no, that is still a big step, says Kevin Carey, policy director at Education Sector, a D.C. think tank.

“I think this is the future,” says Carey, who has written on the emerging relevance of nontraditional credentials.  “It’s just the logical next step for the ethic behind the [open educational resources] movement,” he says.

In interviews, MIT officials took care to emphasize that MITx is not meant to supplant the traditional “residential education” that the university cultivates in its Cambridge, Mass., enclave.

“I truly, sincerely believe that the residential model is the best there is,” says L. Rafael Reif, MIT’s provost, adding that he sees MITx as “augmenting” on-campus courses, not supplanting them. “Without MIT, there is no MITx,” he says.

MIT might not have anything to fear from its foray into open education, but less prestigious institutions might see some of their students opting to take certain courses at MITx instead of their own, says Carey.

MIT might not be using its big stamp on the MITx credentials, but Reif says students in the open courses will be assessed just as rigorously as the MIT students taking the traditional versions. “The MIT content is really hard, and making it online is not going to make it lighter or easier,” he says. The open courses are intended to be “for everyone,” Reif says, but “having said that, I don’t expect everyone to be able to run this race.”

So while MIT might not count MITx certificates toward a degree, other institutions might find it difficult to argue against doing so, Carey says. “Colleges accept transfer credits from other colleges when they really have no idea of what went on at those other colleges,” he says.

“Here it would seem that, with an MITx class, you can see what it was,” Carey says. “And there’s no question as to what has been taught, and there’s really a high-credibility brand name behind it.”

William Kline, the interim vice president for academic affairs at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, says his institution would have some instinctive concerns about accepting a certificate from a free, open online course -- even if it did have MIT’s backing.

“We haven’t really entertained the discussion of whether to accept a certificate of mastery of skills,” Kline says. “Maybe that is the old-fashioned, traditional model, but that’s where we are today.”

But the Rose-Hulman dean said institutions such as his may not be able to avoid the question for much longer.

“Education is certainly changing,” he says, “and online education and distance education is going to force us to examine what we do and what we give credit for.”

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