For its latest experiment, the prestigious and forward-thinking MIT is bringing learning into the 21st century. The school has introduced a program where students can work toward obtaining their Master’s degree online, for the low, low price of… free. Currently only available in the Supply Chain Management program, it allows students to receive credit for the first semester of study online, where they obtain a “Micro Master’s” and can then apply for acceptance to the on-campus Master’s program.
This is a mutually beneficial opportunity for students and MIT — students can take for-credit classes for free, and the university has a wider range of students to choose from. The university has another advantage: It can see how well students perform in the program before actually admitting them. Digitizing education is nothing new for MIT, whose MITx allows anyone with an internet connection to watch lectures and interact with discussions. It’s all part of the bigger trend of MOOCS (Massive Online Open Courses), which many top-tier universities are implementing (via platforms like edX) as a way to make education more accessible. But taking a class online isn’t the same as taking one in person, and it presents a bigger question surrounding what education is and what we want out of it.
When MOOCS first came on the scene, they were heralded as the great democratizer of education, bringing information out of the Ivy towers and in the hands of the people. Allowing everyone to have access to the same information is a wonderful and empowering thing, but college education isn’t just about procuring information. In my experience, being in a classroom and being forced to listen to other people’s opinions and also having to defend my own, was as much a part of learning as digesting content. Even if MOOCS introduce innovative ways to interact with the physical or virtual classroom, it’s not a replacement for being physically present. The MIT idea works because it’s for a Master’s program, so students have already been through more traditional education. They have learned critical-thinking skills, which help make sense of the information and content they are given in a class. Without critical thinking, information has no context and is thus significantly less useful. MOOCS aren’t a replacement for undergraduate education, but I’m interested to see how they might enhance it.
How education will respond to a culture that is switching from analog to digital, and if the MIT Micro Master’s become a new and more common alternative remains to be seen. But education isn’t immune to the laws of evolution, and it must change as we undergo this worldwide cultural shift. While I think it’s not a good idea to replace physical universities with digital ones, there is certainly a middle ground, and both worlds have a lot to learn from each other. Or maybe 10 years from now we’ll all graduate from Mooninite University with Micro Master’s we’ve received telepathically. Either way, the revolution will not be televised (but it will be streaming on edX.)
Lori Chandler is a writer and comedian living in Brooklyn, NY, which is the most unoriginal sentence she has ever written. You can look at her silly drawings on Tumblr, Rad Drawings, or read her silly tweets @LilBoodleChild. Enough about her, she says: how are you?
Pedestrians cross the street in front of the William Barton Rogers Building at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S., on Tuesday, June 30, 2015. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, founded in 1861, is traditionally known for its research and education in the physical sciences and engineering, and more recently in biology, economics, linguistics, and management as well. Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty Images