February 25, 2017

MIT to develop new Open Learning Enterprise unit for online learning

Reif, L. (2012) Letter to the community on appointment of Open Learning Enterprise director MIT News, March 16

News Office (2012) Anant Agarwal named director of new unit to advance MITx, MIT News, March 16

There are some interesting developments in online learning at MIT, following on from the launch of their MITx initiative.

The main instructor who developed the first MITx course, Professor Anant Agarwal, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, has been appointed by the Provost to set up a new unit:

‘an Open Learning Enterprise (working title) at MIT, which is charged with developing a robust, open-source technology platform for interactive, pedagogically effective online learning, and working with MIT faculty to create content to be hosted on the platform.

Dr. Agarwal’s initial goals are the rapid organization of the enterprise, the rapid development of a technology platform for online courses and the development of high-quality MITx subjects.

MIT will make the open-learning software available free of cost, so that others… can leverage the same software for their online education offerings.

MITx will be coupled with an Institute-wide research initiative into online learning that will study how students, whether on campus or part of a virtual community, learn most effectively.’


First, I welcome the fact that MIT is putting time and resources to creating an organizational structure to support and develop open courses that will be widely available. This is a welcome extension of the successful MITx initiative.

However, I am surprised that MIT finds the need to develop yet another open source platform. I’m wondering how this will differ from say Sakai or Moodle or the host of new cloud based open source LMSs now hitting the market?

I would have thought the main priority would be to build a long term, sustainable business model for MITx, or will this be dependent on the very generous endowments and charity foundations that MIT has access to? (If so, then that’s a pity, since it’s not a transferable model).

My second priority would be to get more courses out the door. Only then would I look to see if I needed to develop a new platform.

I was also surprised to see that MIT will now be doing research into how students learn most effectively. Again, I welcome this, but will this be carried out by electrical and  mechanical engineers (as is implied in the press release), and will they take account of the great deal of research that has already been done on this – or is this another case of MIT hubris? (I look forward to qualified but unemployed philosophers designing and building free bridges for cash-strapped US states. The principle is the same.)

Underlying all this is the question of who ‘owns’ online learning, engineers or educators? Most people won’t care, as long as it works, but in general, I am against the principles of both reinventing the wheel, or making big mistakes in teaching which result in learners suffering.

My suggestion: get MIT to appoint some professionals with experience in online teaching and research to work with the subject experts. Then we may have excellent innovations in online learning that work for everyone. Maybe this is happening already, but if so, these other professionals aren’t getting the recognition in MIT press releases.

In the meantime, I wish Professor Agarwal and MIT the best of luck in this new initiative. I hope it is truly successful.