“This is the largest classroom in the world, Professor -- television.” That’s what Charles Van Doren is told in the movie Quiz Show. And now, the potential for education assigned to television in the 1950s and described in that film is now found on the Internet.
The reach of the Internet has changed the experience for people who pursue college studies outside traditional school settings. Distance learning has evolved from correspondence courses of dubious reputation to full-scale online courses at well-known universities.
One prominent university involved in online programming is MIT. On December 19, the school announced the launch of MITx, an interactive online “learning platform” that allows communication among students. MITx also will “allow for the individual assessment of any student’s work and allow students who demonstrate their mastery of subjects to earn a certificate of completion awarded by MITx.” The platform is set to become available in spring 2012.
Susan Hockfield, president of MIT, sees this move as extension of the university’s core value of accessible education “MIT has long believed that anyone in the world with the motivation and ability to engage MIT coursework should have the opportunity to attain [it],” she stated.
This kind of accessibility was the idea behind the launch of MIT’s OpenCourseWare 10 years ago. That project now encompasses over 2,000 graduate and undergraduate courses that over 100 million students have accessed for free. As Hockfield explains, “OpenCourseWare’s great success signals high demand for MIT’s course content and propels us to advance beyond making content available.”
All classes are to be free of charge, though MIT says there would be an affordable fee for certification. Also, students with certification from MITx would be clearly identified as having completed the online program and are not to be taken for students of MIT itself.
While the “x” designation is intended to distinguish online certification work, it could lead to another identity problem. There already is an entity in Boston listed under the domain MITX.org: Massachusetts Innovation and Technology Exchange, which is not affiliated with MIT. People looking for more information about the MITx program could find themselves on the wrong site, as could those looking into MITX. Perhaps MIT will discover this before the spring semester and come up with a more unique moniker for the program.
It would surely be naïve for people to believe that the benefit of the classes taught by MIT instructors would put them on equal footing with students enrolled in the university. One of the comments to Slate’s blog post on the announcement of the MITx program pointed this out in reference to the “branding” of Ivy League schools: “The problem here is that this kind of education doesn't help you make friends with people who will help you get jobs later. If you're not in the club, the club members don't introduce you to their friends and colleagues.”
Elite universities are among the original social networks, connecting students to the right people for career advancement. Even outside the network, anyone with a degree from MIT on a resume gets noticed by the people who do hiring.
Will an MITx certificate have the same effect? I doubt it. Nevertheless, learning is a good thing, and the certificate program could be a boon to those who cannot afford the fees other universities charge for their online courses.
— Ariella Brown is a freelance writer, editor, and social media consultant.