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.




  1. Hi Tony,

    Thank you for the good news.

    My understanding is that Free/Libre Open Source Software initiatives enable innovation through competing proposals. Each project is an adventure and a learning experience in itself. Evolving prototypes can be taken for a ride since their earliest stages. Comments and feedback are factored in the next iterations, thus shaping the on-going discussion about design.

    Diversity is a source of enrichment. Behind diverse technologies, there are different minds, and different people. Having them co-exist gives us the chance to participate in an extraordinary debate between diverse, and sometimes opposite views.

    I welcome this initiative from the MIT. LMS are still too linear to my taste. There is surely something better than the classic UI that is yet too reminiscent of the first websites. For example, current LMS are mostly about displaying and linking data. I hope MIT folks will take this upside down to put the user front and center. We need a new paradigm to make it easier to develop, to share, and to “get” content (also to be understood as “understand”).

    Last but not least, I would challenge your metaphor. Research is research. Surely, it helps to have an expert-level understanding of the subject, but where epistemology is sound, why not welcoming another perspective? Engineers are smart people too, and they are certainly allowed to reflect on their discipline, and on their teaching practice for some of them. Fortunately, some of them have some teaching skills, like this guy, Khan.

    • From Lalita Rajasingham
      New Zealand

      Thanks Tony

      As usual you are congratulated for highlighting some of the most interesting/contentious/well-worn issues in an objective way. The MITx initiative and publicity from my perspective is puzzling in that it purports to be an innovative and world-shattering research and praxis initiative. I feel like Rip van Winkle (waking up after 100 years!) to see that nothing new has been discovered in the last two decades in this field.

      Is the MITx initiative new like discovering sliced bread in 2012? If we are academics worth our salt, and as we deal with global issues, then we need to acquaint ourselves with in-depth research in the topics we are promoting that has long been going on globally beyond our borders, and have the courtesy to acknowledge research on what has been done in the area of open source/virtual/e-learning etc. and is an area of prolific research. After all we penalise our students for plagiarism, for not accurately attributing, citing and referencing the sources in their research.

      As a long-time researcher and internationally acclaimed author in the area myself, I am amazed at the fact that very often, no acknowledgement is given in the US research to the research and publications emanating from researchers in other parts of the world that examine in a macro sense, the use of ICTs for learning and teaching.

      Unlike the output of Einstein and Newton, the term ‘research’ in academe implies that it builds on past research to seek new applications of ICT in education in a culturally diverse world, and continues to be priority in most countries.

      Finally, perhaps the MITx is intended to be a national initiative, and in which case, may the initiative meet the success it deserves.

      Lalita Rajasingham

  2. I do welcome the project, after working with Moodle 2.0 for the last year, the platform from a UI control is just horrible (or maybe we failed to config it properly). I also enrolled in 6.002x , the first course released on MITx, and I must say the set up is really, really neat. In fact I’m trying to get more information about when the source will be released, but I’m still waiting on that.

    Of course it’s necessary to separate the platform from a well thought-out course, the latter being a job for the educators & e-learners. But the platform also has to allow seamless learning, use the facilities and advances in web technologies (i.e. HTML5).

    I do think a ground up approach with building a new LMS makes sense. Even features like embedding video with closed captions is pretty tough to do in Moodle, but MITx seems to handle it nicely. The open source aspect of the project will also help to innovation, not just in the learning space, as in the maturity of the platform evolves.

    I await the first release of MITx in anticipation.

  3. […] BW (2012) 120,000 enroll in MITx online Circuits and Electronics course, NextBigFuture, April 21. This provides a brief update on MIT’s Open Learning Enterprise and a video interview with Professor Anant Agarwal, its director and a main instructor on MITx 6002.x course. It is clear that the aim at MITx is to automate online teaching as much as possible. It could result in some interesting online lab designs and automated assessments. See also: MIT to develop new Open Learning Enterprise unit for online learning  […]


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