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The Massachusetts Institute of Technology ended 2011 with a grand announcement: It would broadcast massive, open online courses — equal in rigor to its on-campus offerings — to tens of thousands of non-enrolled, non-paying learners around the world. Eventually, the university would offer these students a pathway to some sort of credential. The project, called MITx, was heralded as a major step toward using technology to refigure the economics of higher education.

Now comes the hard part: actually pulling it off.

The first course, 6.002x: Circuits & Electronics, appears to be going smoothly, drawing 120,000 registrants since it opened last month.

MIT, meanwhile, is beginning to grapple with the practical aspects of the project. After spending the winter talking about MITx with curious journalists and educators around the world, the project’s administrative ambassadors have started engaging with the university’s own vaunted faculty members, who have raised hard questions about what precisely MITx portends for the future of the university.

In a provocative essay in the latest edition of MIT’s faculty newsletter, Woodie Flowers, an emeritus professor of mechanical engineering, draws a distinction between training and education.

“Education is much more subtle and complex and is likely to be accomplished through mentorship or apprentice-like interactions between a learner and an expert,” Flowers wrote, quoting from one of his own lectures.

The “sweet spot for expensive universities such as MIT,” he continued, is a blend of “highly-produced training systems” and a high-touch apprenticeship model that emphasizes direct interactions between faculty and students. “MITx,” Flowers contends, “seems aimed at neither"

Samuel Allen, a professor of metallurgy and chair of the MIT faculty, wrote an essay for the same issue of the newsletter that struck a less critical tone but also raised questions about the implications of inexpensive online iterations of the university’s curricular offerings.

“If MITx is wildly successful, what is the future of the residential education experience that has been our mode of teaching for MIT’s entire history?” Allen wrote. “If students can master course materials online for free (or for a modest ‘credentialing’ fee), what incentives would there be for anyone to invest in an expensive residential college education?”

While Allen did not advise the university against pursuing its MITx vision, the faculty chair recommended that MIT invest more heavily in its undergraduate advising program in order to safeguard the value proposition of its expensive on-campus experience.

Champions of the project, including the university's provost and chancellor, are currently meeting with department heads to gauge how faculty members are reacting to  MITx. “My sense is that there remains a great deal of excitement and enthusiasm among most of our faculty, and a lot of good questions," says Eric Grimson, a professor of computer science and engineering and chancellor of MIT. Grimson says he, Provost L. Rafael Reif, and Anant Agarwal, the head of MIT's computer science and artificial intelligence laboratory, are scheduling town-hall style forums where faculty will be able to engage them directly.

MIT administrators recognize the sensitivity that comes with voluntarily challenging assumptions about an operating model that has served it well, and continues to do so. Massively open online courses, or MOOCs are increasingly part of the national conversation about change in higher education, as high-profile institutions such as MIT and Stanford University have anted up and gained huge followings; nobody is worried that MITx will fizzle out. The greater question is: What if MITx is too successful?

In addition to the 120,000 far-flung registrants, 20 MIT undergraduates are taking the Circuits & Electronics course for credit toward their MIT degrees. The students were enlisted by MITx to act as minesweepers, working through the material several weeks ahead of the crowd and reporting any bugs in the software platform the project administrators have developed to host the course’s video tutorials, problem sets, and discussion forums and automatically grade student work.

As far as its content, the student testers are hardly getting an easier iteration of the course, says Gerald Sussman, a professor of electrical engineering and co-instructor of 6.002x. “The class we’re giving is equivalent to the class we’re giving at MIT,” Sussman told Inside Higher Ed. “It’s not watered down or anything.”

This is true in part because of the autonomy that MIT students are given in general. Students enrolled in the analog version of Circuits & Electronics mostly spend classroom sessions working through problems without much guidance, Sussman says. The value of the professor in this context lies in designing problems that will enable students to apply and develop their own instincts, he says.

The participation of tuition-paying MIT students in the MITx course raises some provocative questions. “That can easily be seen as, that’s the first step toward getting rid of the campus experience,” says Grimson, who is one of the two most senior academic officials at the university. If MIT undergraduates can take MITx courses for credit toward their degrees, then why shouldn’t non-enrolled MITx registrants get MIT credit for completing the same course? (The university has said that learners who pass MITx courses may in the future receive some sort of credential, but not credit from MIT proper.)

But the goal of MITx, according to officials, is not to undermine its residential program as much as improve it. The university has taken care to give the undergraduate MITx enrollees something their online counterparts do not get: supplemental face time with campus faculty.

Such “recitation sessions,” totaling about two hours per week, are typical of face-to-face courses at MIT, says Grimson. And so far they are not replicable in the context of a MOOC.

So far the university has no plans to see how its residential students fare without the “recitation” component, Grimson says.

The goal of developing virtual laboratories and software that automatically assesses students’ ability to vanquish complex problems and tasks is not to eliminate the need for real, live professors, says Sussman; it is to figure out what parts of the face-to-face delivery model can be automated so professors and students can double-down on the pieces of an MIT education that are oriented to apprenticeship.

“MITx will not, after all, deliver the benefits of human-to-human interaction via late night talks, camaraderie-developing activities, accidental conversations, in-the-office critiques… probing debates, intellectual wrestling, and other on-site elements of a university education in general and an MIT education in particular,” wrote the editors of the faculty newsletter in an editorial.

“Not yet anyway.”

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