Summary:

MIT next spring will launch a pilot of MITx online-only courses geared to reach prospective learners around the world. And, the university plans to open source the underlying technology coursework infrastructure for use by other educational institutions.

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Next spring, MIT will launch a pilot of MITx online-only courses geared  to reach prospective learners everywhere. The university said it will open source the underlying technology infrastructure for use by other educational institutions.

MITx builds on the near-ubiquity of broadband communications, as well as availability of social networking capabilities that make online interaction for prospective students easier. MITx coursework will incorporate online laboratories and interactive student-to-student communication.

The effort is led by MIT provost L. Rafael Reif. In a statement released Monday, Reif said:

Students worldwide are increasingly supplementing their classroom education with a variety of online tools. Many members of the MIT faculty have been experimenting with integrating online tools into the campus education. We will facilitate those efforts, many of which will lead to novel learning technologies that offer the best possible online educational experience to non-residential learners. Both parts of this new initiative are extremely important to the future of high-quality, affordable, accessible education.

MITx takes some cues from the university’s existing OpenCourseware effort, which offers free, non-accredited online courses. MITx students who do well, on the other hand, can pay a fee and earn an MITx certificate of completion, but not an MIT degree. Charges have not been finalized.

The underlying infrastructure, under development by a team led by Anant Agarwal, director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL)  will be available to whoever needs it.

Creating an open learning infrastructure will enable other communities of developers to contribute to it, thereby making it self-sustaining … 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.

It’s clear that online learning, once the province of for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix, is of growing importance to traditional colleges and universities seeking ways to reach beyond their traditional constituencies.

Given the choice of a certificate from an MIT or other brand-name institution or a degree from a for-profit school, many students might opt for the former. This is especially true given the debate raging about whether schools are pushing postsecondary degrees for their own commercial purposes. If a non-degreed certification from a respected institution is seen as just as valuable as a postsecondary degree from a non-brand-name school, there could be big shakeup coming in higher ed.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Alun K. Wu.

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