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MITx: MIT Starts Online Classes

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Think you can hack it at MIT? If so, the world-renowned university is willing to give you a new kind of credential to prove it.

Not a full-fledged diploma – that's still a possibility only for the 10,000 or so students admitted to its Cambridge, Mass., campus. But on Monday, MIT is announcing that for the first time it will offer credentials – under the name "MITx" – to students who complete the online version of certain courses, starting with a pilot program this spring.

"This is not MIT light. This is not an easier version of MIT," said Provost L. Rafael Reif. "An MITx learner, anywhere they are, for them to earn a credential they have to demonstrate mastery of the subject just like an MIT student does."

The announcement comes as elite universities like Stanford, Yale and Carnegie-Mellon are experimenting with how to use the Internet to extend their teaching to a global audience hungering for instruction on platforms like YouTube, Apple's iTunes U and others developed by universities themselves. MIT's OpenCourseWare has been among the most popular, making course materials such as syllabi, tests and lecture videos from over 2,000 MIT classes available free online. The 10-year-old program has been accessed by more than 100 million people worldwide.

But where elite universities like MIT have mostly stopped short is offering some kind of credential that carries the university name and proves the recipient has mastered the high-caliber curriculum. One concern is that awarding such credentials too readily could dilute the value of the degree earned by students in the university's highly-selective traditional programs. But MIT officials said while OpenCourseWare has distributed knowledge widely, the lack of a credential keeps many from benefiting.

Many users "want to have piece of paper saying they learned something and maybe that will help them get a job," Reif said.

Now MIT is looking to strike that balance – with an extra letter. University officials described "MITx" as a non-profit entity established inside the university that will offer an "MIT-sanctioned certificate" for completing various courses or, perhaps eventually, whole course sequences – though MIT emphasized full degrees will not be in the offing.

How exactly will it work? On a conference call Friday, university officials were short on many details – how many courses would eventually be offered, how much it would cost, even the name of the first course for the experiment in spring.

They did say they would focus, at least initially, on science and engineering, where assessment is fairly objective and easily scaled up. Users might include a high school senior who wants to take an early freshman class at MIT, or college students at overseas universities where a particular course isn't offered, explained Anant Agarwal, an electrical engineering and computer science professor who is helping lead the initiative.

Users will experience courses in a new, open-source online learning platform that will also be made available to other universities to operate themselves and develop their own courses. For each MIT course, students would find interactive videos and other materials, and could even potentially complete science laboratory assignments from afar.

It's not clear how much if any direct access participants would have to MIT faculty; as Agarwal described it, computer models might alert professors to the most common questions for them to address, but less common questions might be answered by other students taking the same course. Most assessments would be automated, but MIT said everyone would be held to the same standards as regular MIT students.

So far, everything would be free. But students who want to receive a credential from MITx might have to take an additional exam at a secure testing site to demonstrate mastery, and would also have to pay. The university said it hadn't decided yet how much to charge. Officials said they want the courses to be affordable, so prices might vary between countries, but they believe it's important for students to pay something.

Reif said "money is not the driver." But with MIT's global brand and the huge interest OpenCourseWare has already generated, there's clearly revenue potential. Roger Schonfeld, director of research at Ithaka S+R, who follows the field, said the potential market will depend on a range of factors – namely what MIT charges and whether other universities decide the MIT brand is meaningful enough that they will accept transfer credits from a program that is not-quite MIT.

While many universities – both for-profit and traditional – offer online courses for credit, Schonfeld said he believed this was the first time a highly selective university has offered a credential on this model.

Stanford offers a "certificate of completion" for some of the hugely popular online engineering courses it offers, but it holds no value as part of a degree program, the university said. Stanford's highly popular offerings on YouTube and iTunes offer no opportunities for credit, nor do the popular "Open Yale" courses.

But in a way, Schonfeld said, MIT's project is kind of a throw-back. A number of prominent universities, such as Harvard and NYU, have extension programs or colleges of general studies where they offer at least a version of their teaching to a much broader swath of the public than those who make it through the bottleneck of the traditional admissions process.

"The prospect of taking that kind of model, if that's what this is, into an online environment, and scaling it up into a global model is really exciting," he said.

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Justin Pope covers higher education for The Associated Press. You can reach him at http://twitter.com/JustinPopeAP

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