Back in November, a MIT-wide task force issued its preliminary report on the future of MIT education. The taskforce was convened by MIT President Rafael Reif, motivated by a need to better flesh out the future of residential learning given the significant growth in online learning and M.O.O.C.s (Massive Online Open Courses) over the past few years.
The taskforce included three working groups:
- MIT education and facilities for the future,
- The future global implications of edX and the opportunities it creates,
- A new financial model for education.
Future models for MIT education
Two words that come back frequently in the report are unbundling (of course offerings toward a degree) and blurring (of boundaries). Another favorite is modularity, "which can provide increased flexibility for students to customize their degree programs," for instance in conjunction with semester-long or year-long study-abroad programs. The emphasis is on unbundling/rebundling the MIT course curriculum through an increased reliance on such modules, defined by the outcomes they seek to achieve and driven by competency-based assessment.
Of course, the report also makes repeated use of academia's current favorite buzzword, blended learning, i.e., "a combination of digital learning technologies and face-to-face pedagogical strategies. Experiential learning and residential learning are two other expressions commonly used. The report provides the following description of future education: "The classroom is evolving from a room-with-a-blackboard to an online forum blended with hands-on activities. Teaching is evolving from speaking at a podium to activities that center on the interactive engagement of students. Assessment materials are evolving from weekly paper problem sets to instantly graded, interactive questions and simulations, with evaluations from multitudes of peer learners. Information delivery is giving way to interactive learning."
The taskforce envisions the combination of "online activities with in-person interactions and hands-on experiences" through academic villages composed of "classrooms, breakout spaces, study spaces, technical support, food services and library facilities with integrated faculty offices and laboratories". They would be complemented by maker spaces with 3D printers, laser cutters and open source hardware.
MIT's interactions with the world
The second working group investigated possible synergies between MIT students and a global audience, including learners from MITx communities. In a recent experiment called ChicagoX, "MIT alumni served as mentors to students in Chicago who took a computer science class offered by MITx" and were "able to collect and relay feedback about the students' experience and about the software platform". This kind of engagement also strengthens MIT's ties with its alumni.
MIT students trained on the edX platforms can also serve as summer interns abroad, helping the MITx brand while benefiting from a meaningful experience, which the report asserts has "the potential for an initiative akin to the Peace Corps." This echoes the 2006 report of the task force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons, which stated that "a top agenda item of involving more MIT undergraduates in international experiences is providing a strong signal... that an international experience is not a luxury. Rather, it is a highly desirable component of an individual's undergraduate experience, regardless of major."
I already know a lot about blended learning so the findings of the first working group didn't surprise me, but the interwoven nature of the relationships between MIT students serving as interns, MIT alumni serving as coaches and the learners of the MITx communities, as imagined by the second working group, struck me as a groundbreaking idea that can truly transform higher education.
The numbers behind a MIT education
The findings by the third working group, whose charge had been described as "a new financial model for education", were mostly underwhelming, although valuable as a starting point for further discussion. "By any measure we have studied, an MIT education is increasingly in demand. Paying for an MIT education, however, is costly. Our model today depends primarily on the ability to continue to attract significant research funding and philanthropic support and to generate high real investment returns." No surprise.
The difficulty for the third working group is obviously that it can't really devise new financial models for education until it knows the new education models put forward by the first working group. It is critical to discuss financial models in the context of the new, modular approach recommended earlier. I also think that course unbundling - where students can take some courses from an institution and others from another one as they seek to obtain their degree - should lead to novel degree-granting rules and financial aid formulas.
Current rules, which simply give transfer students residency requirements (minimum number of credits taken) in order to graduate from their new institution, are clearly outdated, and students who show their loyalty to a given institution could possibly be rewarded by more advantageous financial aid or loan terms once a certain number of credits have been completed.
Given the focus on experiential learning, financial models should also incorporate updated approaches regarding co-ops or "alternated" education (some weeks in the classroom, some weeks in industry), which would build upon the modular teaching approach quite nicely. There is also the question of perhaps providing certificates in addition to degrees, targeting students who will take some courses from an institution but not enough to get a Bachelor's (the focus of the report is very strongly on undergraduates), and whether this could create a new revenue stream.
In other words, the findings of the third working group don't even begin to scratch the surface of the sort of finance-related questions that will need to be asked, but without a clear idea of the innovative structures to be put in place, it is very hard for anyone to come up with groundbreaking financial models.
Most inspiring in the report was the description of how the MIT student, MIT alumni and MITx learner communities networks could strengthen each other through new ties and educational models, and how the future of MIT education could give MIT students international experiences with strong public-service and experiential-learning components.