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.
Justin Pope covers higher education for The Associated Press. You can reach him at http://twitter.com/JustinPopeAP
INDULGE YOUR INNER NERD
This school has produced the most famous nerds on the planet: 31 astronauts, 76 Nobel laureates, Robert Metcalfe (the guy that co-invented the Ethernet), Kofi Annan, John M. Deutch (ex-Director of Central Intelligence), and William Reddington Hewitt (co-founder of Hewlett-Packard). But that doesn't even scratch the surface of the nerdy beast that is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2009 and 2010 MIT made a point of emailing its application decisions to prospective students on Pi Day. For "fun," MIT students partake in a Mystery Hunt, an annual competition in which students are invited to solve a large number of puzzles in order to find a coin hidden somewhere on campus. Even their pranks are seamless technological extravaganzas. At the Harvard-Yale football game in 1996, the Harvard logos on the scoreboard were hacked from VE-RI-TAS to read HU-GE-EGO instead. The typical MIT applicant is so overscheduled (on average they list 12 extracurricular activities) that, back in 2004, the MIT application was overhauled and a new question was instated: What do you do for fun? Dean of Admissions Marilee Jones said the change was prompted by an interaction with one MIT student in which, upon asking a group of students, "What do you daydream about?" one boy answered: "We don't daydream. There's no reward for it, so we don't do it."
Okay. So we feel like we're cheating here and going for the obvious names. But in truth, it is really difficult to out-nerd the students of MIT and CIT. Especially when you put the two together. The MIT-CIT rivalry has been called "the geeky version of working things out on the football field." In 2005, for example, a group of CIT students ventured to MIT during a prospective student weekend to hand out 400 T-shirts wrapped in plastic that said "MIT" on the front. On the back? "...Because not everyone can go to Caltech." So great is the rivalry between MIT and CIT that it's been recounted by Time Magazine and documented in three separate volumes entitled Legends of Caltech by CIT alumni. Other quirky on-campus customs at the school? Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" is played at 7 a.m. each morning during finals week, but playing the piece at any other time is forbidden. Considering the fact that Caltech was ranked 2nd internationally in 2010 by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, the best university in the world within the Engineering and Technology Universities category and second best within the Physical Sciences Universities category, we're pretty impressed that these guys find the time to put their brilliance to use in a more--atypical fashion?
Having chosen to attend a school whose alumni association includes 85 Nobel laureates, it's no surprise that UChicago students love their studying and love their labs. There's so much studying and researching going on at the university that its President allegedly begged students, on several occasions, to go out into the city to relax. But according to one of the coolest and nerdiest studies ever done (by a UC student, of course), her fellow students are 63 percent more likely to be happy than sad. How did the student discover this? She analyzed more than 1,700 pieces of on-campus graffiti by categorizing the scrawl into a handful of topics (think sex, school spirit, advice, etc.). She transcribed and interpreted each piece of graffiti. She converted her findings into spreadsheet data and then, using simple math, crunched the numbers. According to a Chicago Tribune article profiling her findings. Above: One of the student (Quinn Deombrowski) researcher's finds. Check out the rest of her photos here.
In 2007, Bill Cosby opened the Carnegie Mellon commencement speech with two words. "Uhhh...Nerds." It's true. Lovers of computer science, engineering and math flock to the school. It's no wonder it was ranked 1st for graduate studies in computer science in 2010, a position consistently held in the past save for 2009. The annual "Mobot" competition, a portmanteau for "mobile robot," is one of the campus's most popular events. According to Cosby's speech, nerds are a breed that can't dance, that don't even know how to "stand in a room and look human." Why, Cosby muses, would "you want to accept yourselves as being that?" And then he remembers: "Because you have continued on where non-nerds stopped... they said I'm tired, why do I have to know this. You guys continued on... I think it's very, very brave." And it's true. CMU kids care about their causes. Above: A photo from the 2011 Mobot Competition
According to a recent report released by PayScale.com, Harvey Mudd alums will earn a mid-level salary of around $126,000 after graduation, making an undergraduate degree from Harvey Mudd the most profitable degree of 2011. But that certainly doesn't mean that Mudd students are all work and no play. For example, the engineers of Harvey Mudd recently gained local applause when they developed a Rube Goldberg machine (an elaborately engineered machine that performs a simple task in an extremely complex fashion) that ran the length of the campus. The machine, which was built on a very small budget, was "built in sections by the eight dorms on campus and the sections [were] linked together through inter-dorm collaboration." Check it out here.
In the game of quirkiest traditions, Reed College students win. Always. What other school has a Seventh Annual Nitrogen Day (an annual event that is forever referred to as the Seventh Annual because nitrogen is the seventh element on the periodic table)? Over the course of the day, students celebrate nitrogen (a terribly under-appreciated element) by enjoying live entertainment, free food, and haiku recitation on the porch of the student union. One student reviewer called Reed "Nerd heaven. You will almost always find another weirdo with whom you can babble about semiotics or organic chemistry." Put more delicately, you can always find another student with more bizarre passions and fascinating quirks. We think Reed sounds awesome in every way. Above: Students compete at Renn Fayre.
Okay, so you'd expect some nerdesque traditions to come from a school whose most popular majors are Mechanical Engineering and Robotics Engineering. But my God, WPI takes the cake in nerd pride. Though their official mascot is the goat, their football team is referred to as the Engineers. Their fight song is the ever-inspiring trigonometry-laced battle cry: "E to the x, D-Y D-X, E to the x, D-X. Cosine, Secant, Tangent, Sine, 3.14159 E-I, Radical, Pi, Fight 'em, Fight 'em, WPI!" and one of the most popular clubs on-campus clubs is the Combat Robotics Team, which designs, builds, and competes robots programmed to fight.
In response to the question "What are some stereotypes about Carleton College students?", one unigo.com student reviewer replied, "We are nerdy, we love frisbee, and we are generally less good-looking." Are the stereotypes accurate? "Generally," The student replied, "We have 1.9 frisbees per student, we are definitely nerdy, and we don't have much time to make ourselves look good." Offbeat organizations like the Mustache Club--for students who have a mustache or are willing to don a fake one periodically (screw the gender binary!)--exemplify the kind of extra-extracurriculars that Carleton co-eds partake in. Another perfect illustration of the typical Carleton brand of nerdom is "Daft Hands," a YouTube video made by a student that has received over 50 million hits.