MIT's New Model

Massachusetts Institute of Technology will explore stackable credentials and massive open online courses as an alternative path to earning a master's degree.

October 8, 2015

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology will next year launch the first of what could be several pilots to determine if pieces of what it has provided face-to-face can be delivered through massive open online courses.

The institute on Wednesday announced an alternative path for students to enroll in its supply chain management program and earn a master’s of engineering in logistics degree. Instead of students being required to move to Cambridge, Mass., for the duration of the 10-month program, MIT will offer half of the program through MOOCs, saving students tens of thousands of dollars in tuition.

Learners who complete the MOOCs but can’t afford or simply aren’t interested in finishing the degree won’t walk away empty-handed. MIT will offer those learners a new microcredential, called a MicroMaster’s, and is working with other organizations that offer supply chain management programs to ensure they will accept the credential toward degree completion.

MIT has for years expressed an interest in using MOOCs and other technologies to cut down on the time students spend on campus. In a 2013 report on the future of MIT, a task force urged the institute to explore new models of education and “take advantage of … disruptions rather than ignoring them.”

In an interview Wednesday with Inside Higher Ed, MIT President L. Rafael Reif echoed that conclusion. “I’d rather we disrupt ourselves than be disrupted by somebody else,” he said.

By letting students complete their first semester through MOOCs, MIT is effectively offering a “try before you buy” promotion. The institute calls this inverted admissions -- taking courses and then applying, as opposed to the traditional other way around.

MIT is the latest institution to use low-cost MOOCs as a stepping-stone to a degree. Earlier this fall, edX and Arizona State University launched Global Freshman Academy, which offers students an opportunity to enroll in a MOOC, complete course requirements and -- if they are satisfied with their performance -- pay the university to receive credit.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has used a similar model for its iMBA program, which allows students to complete much of the curriculum before deciding whether or not to apply to the university’s College of Business and pursue the full M.B.A. degree.

George Siemens, a MOOC researcher who leads the Learning Innovation and Networked Knowledge Research Lab at the University of Texas at Arlington, said those examples suggest the institutions are showing a willingness to remake themselves.

“We are finally starting to see that process unfolding now as universities are responding to trends in technology and society broadly,” Siemens said in an email. “What has been called disruption -- [competency-based education], boot camps and so on -- will be appropriated by universities. This is the start.”

Richard DeMillo, the Charlotte B. and Roger C. Warren Chair of Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said the MicroMaster’s path is “yet another indication that the old models [of higher education] are vulnerable.” (Georgia Tech is already well underway with its own MOOC-powered degree program.)

“My guess is that once learners find out that this is a better, more effective learning experience, they will come pouring in,” DeMillo said in an email.

MIT will offer the first MOOC starting in February. Since it will take some time for the institute to convert all five of the courses offered during the first semester of the program into MOOCs, the first cohort is unlikely to graduate before June 2018, Reif said.

MIT may launch similar pilots in other programs in the coming years, Reif said. Before the institute makes a final decision about whether or not to expand the model, “it would be great to see at least once class graduate, if not two,” he said.

The pilot will hopefully provide MIT with answers to questions about admissions, course quality and need-based financial aid, Reif said. He was unable to say specifically how MIT will ensure learners who complete the MOOCs will quickly be evaluated for admission into the residential program, but suggested learners may be able to announce their intent at an early stage and complete the paperwork before finishing the last MOOC.

MIT’s website states learners who “do exceptionally well” in both the MOOCs and proctored exams will “significantly enhance their chances of being accepted to the full master’s program.”

The institute is also searching for corporate partners that would be willing to offer financial aid. MIT expects many of those who choose the MicroMaster’s path to come from outside the U.S., meaning they will not be eligible for federal aid. Those students will only pay about half of the $65,446 students in the residential program pay for tuition, but a semester priced at more than $30,000 could be a significant barrier.

Although MIT hopes the MicroMaster’s path will increase access to the supply chain management program, the expansion will also come with increased costs for the institution, as it may have to accommodate the program doubling in size. The residential program, which MIT will continue to offer for the time being, normally enrolls about 30 to 40 students, Reif said.

MIT plans to track student performance and if students on the MicroMaster’s path receive comparable job offers as residential students during the pilot, Reif said.

“If it goes well, I do expect that the faculty at MIT would want to expand this program,” Reif said. “If there are many, many, many more people who prefer to try out the program [online] … that’s what we’ll gravitate toward, inevitably.”


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