September 20, 2018

New MIT president a driving force behind MITx and edX

L. Rafael Reif, MIT's new President-elect

L. Rafael Reif, a distinguished electrical engineer, who is completing his seven-year tenure as MIT’s provost, has been selected as the 17th president of the Institute.

As the Institute’s chief academic officer since 2005, Reif led the development of MITx, the Institute’s new initiative in online learning; and led MIT’s role in the formation of edX, the recently announced partnership between MIT and Harvard University that builds on MITx.

This suggests long term support at the highest level for MIT’s massive open online programs.

Harvard joins the MITx project

Lavoie, D. (2012) EdX Online Learning Project Announced By Harvard, MIT Huffington Post, May 2

Harvard University has joined the MITx project, now renamed edEX, supported by $60 million invested jointly by both institutions. As with the earlier MITx courses, students who ‘pass’ the courses will be given certificates.


Good. Free open courses from top universities are welcome.

However, this will not cause a revolution in higher education until:

  • full degrees are awarded by the institutions
  • other institutions can find $30 million each to ‘invest’ in such programs
  • the MITx courses use effective pedagogy so that most of the those attempting the course can successfully complete.

In the meantime, though, this will present an increasing challenge to traditional Continuing Education departments, who have often relied on fee-based online programs as a major source of revenue.

Roundup of news on online developments in US higher education

Having been on the road for the last two weeks, I’ve accumulated a backlog of material for the blog. Here I’m providing a very brief roundup of news on some interesting (and sometimes scary) developments from the USA.

Haurwitz, R. (2012) Texas branch of Western Governors University making mark in cyberspace, April 22: This provides an interesting update on the WGU, which is clearly still going strong.

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 

Des Garennes, C. (2012) Lessons from $18 million Global Campus failure The News-Gazette, April 22. This is an up-dated post-mortem on the prestigious University of Illinois’ attempt to create a for-profit online virtual campus that ended in financial disaster. Some good lessons there – but I covered the reasons for such failures in my 2005 book Technology, e-Learning and Distance Education. Pity they didn’t read it: but does ANYONE in the USA do their homework on what is already known about online learning before launching the next best thing since sliced bread? Which is a nice segue into the next article.

Guttenplan, D. (2012) Building schools out of clicks, not bricks New York Times, April 22. Although it is not immediately apparent, this is a report of the OCW Consortium’s conference on open educational resources in Cambridge, England. The whole article reads as if the USA invented both online learning (“A decade ago there were only a handful of courses available online — all of them from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology“) and open learning. Actually, if you can get through the American hubris, it looks as if it was an interesting conference. But shame on the New York Times for such awful journalism. Aren’t journalists supposed to check their facts any more? I do worry that with such friends as this, online learning is in big trouble. Such coverage does a disservice to the many sound and innovative programs in the USA – and elsewhere.



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.



Will MITx work?


Coughlin, S. (2012) MIT launches free online ‘fully automated’ course, BBC News, February 13

This article provides details of MITx’s first course, 6.002x: Circuits and Electronics, being offered to anyone anywhere in the world, without charge or prior entrance requirements, with an MIT certificate for successful completion. This course uses the same curriculum as the on-campus course with the same name. From the report:

The MITx version has been designed for online students, with a virtual laboratory, e-textbooks, online discussions and videos that are the equivalent of a lecture. It is expected to take 10 hours per week and will run until June.

MIT is making a distinction between the certificate on offer for online students and the fully-fledged degree available to campus-based students. It will also make the MITx material available for its own students.

The university says it has “earmarked a few million dollars” for the project and will look to philanthropists for potential future funding. But the university, famous for its science and technology research, has its own endowment currently worth $8.5bn (£5.4bn).


This is a very important development, for a number of reasons:

  • For me, the most interesting of several aspects of this course is that it is fully automated. Presumably it will be delivered without the need for any instructor to interact with students or to facilitate learning or even to mark assignments. The advantage of this of course is that it will enable an unlimited number of students to take such a course. All the cost is in development, and none in delivery
  • Second, it offers a program that is likely to be valuable to many who could not otherwise access a course of this quality.
  • MITx will put its name to a qualification acquired using this method, unlike earlier Massive Open Online Courses, such as the Artificial Intelligence course offered by Stanford University professors.
  • although it is open to all, there will still be an on-campus course for MIT students; however MIT students will also be able to take the online version and presumably receive credit if they pass successfully (this needs to be confirmed though)
  • it has a number of interactive components, such as student discussions (but without an instructor) and automated feedback and testing. It will be interesting to see how this differs  in design from other online courses, and how well this works, in terms of completion rates.

However, it also raises as many interesting questions:

  • automated online courses are not new; in fact the main form of computer-aided learning in the 1970s was programmed learning, based on behavioristic principles of punishment (failure) and reward (positive feedback). However, in the 1980s there was a move away from behavioristic approaches to teaching, at least in post-secondary education, because it did not develop critical thinking skills (although it worked very well for certain learning tasks). Interestingly also in the 1980s a great deal of money was invested in automated teaching based on artificial intelligence using cognitive psychology principles. This also failed quite spectacularly. It will be interesting to see how this course works out, and whether MIT is happy with the kind of learning it leads to. Maybe we have learned how to automate courses better, after all.
  • is this a business model that could be replicated in other universities? Or is it still heavily dependent on philanthropy?
  • if students complete a series of such ‘certificate’ courses successfully, will MIT award a degree? If not, why not? If on-campus students can take this course for credit, and online students perform to the same level, why shouldn’t the credits be worth the same? Or is there something the on-campus students are getting (say interaction with a real professor) that leads to a superior outcome? If so, why isn’t that ‘extra’ outcome being assessed if the two versions of the course are of the same quality?
  • how well can automated teaching be extended beyond quantitative, objective subjects such as engineering? Or even within engineering, such as design? This depends of course on whether you see education as merely transferring knowledge or as a developmental process that needs support and facilitation.

You can probably see where I am going with these questions. I am trying to ignore my gut reaction that this is in fact a step 30 years backward in e-learning, and I wish to give this very interesting experiment the benefit of the doubt, and I really do wish it well. I also hope this experiment is fully evaluated, as it has tremendous implications.

In my view, making such courses open is terrific, but ONLY if they lead to engineers with the same quality as those who are privileged to be inside the tent. Or doesn’t it matter if the online students aren’t quite as good? With an MITx certificate won’t they still get good jobs?

What do you think? (Your answers will not be automatically marked).