Give credit where credit is due

Rui Shi

Massachusetts Institute of Technology is hoping to legitimize and further transform online learning. The school finds itself at the forefront of the open educational resources movement. With its many online course notes, lecture videos and other educational materials, MIT recently launched another online learning initiative called MITx. The goal of MITx is to extend the reach of higher education and provide students with a means of earning credentials to supplement their studies.

Online courses have earned a reputation for being “lite” versions of their classroom counterparts and are therefore regarded as easier. It is a widely accepted fact, for instance, that if a student needs an easy A for a core class, he or she would do well to take it online. MIT hopes to change this culture.

MITx is not an easier version of MIT but instead carries the MIT pedigree to an online medium where non-residential learners will receive the best possible experience. MITx builds upon MIT’s decade old OpenCourseWare, which now includes nearly 2,100 courses.

The idea of MITx is to allow students to supplement their current coursework in a way that is both easy to scale and accessible. For example, an engineering student will be able to take the knowledge he or she learns in an electronics class and apply it to an online lab. MITx will be a free program. However, those who wish to get credit from MIT will need to take an exam that will cost money.

The ultimate goal of MITx and other online learning programs is to create high-quality, affordable, accessible education for future generations. The Internet revolution has allowed an online learning community to develop. Contributions from MIT and other institutions of higher education will spearhead the movement to create an online consortium. An improved online teaching environment modeled after MITx would bring many benefits to UT.

A bona fide, undiluted online program would extend UT’s global reach. Unlike traditional classes, online courses are unrestricted by physical parameters such as classroom size or student-to-professor ratio. Anyone with a computer and the motivation will be able to complete
UT coursework.

The creation of such an online program can be easily achieved by recording lectures and scanning lecture notes. These materials can be uploaded online for anyone to access.

UT could also improve online courses by making them more interactive. The University could retool its lectures and coursework to be responsive to students’ academic progress. For example, homework grading software could analyze a student’s missed questions and provide suggestions for improvement. An online course could also crowdsource the grading process. Qualified moderators could be certified to comment on students’ work in real time. This would further personalize the course and tailor it to the needs of the student.

A UTx-type program could also better prepare incoming freshman for the rigors of a university-level education. Rather than taking an AP test, a graduating high school senior could take a freshman class early to get a better understanding of what it takes to succeed at the undergraduate level.

Moreover, the interest generated by MITx and MIT’s OpenCourseWare shows that online programs present an opportunity to create revenue. Depending on their size and quality, future online programs at UT could help generate much-needed money.

In its current state, online education is seen as an inferior manifestation of a real course. However, if done well, online education could become the preferred medium for future generations of students.

Shi is an electrical and computer engineering junior.