Openness as a Privilege Multiplier and the MIT Certificates

This is pretty huge news:

Millions of learners have enjoyed the free lecture videos and other course materials published online through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare project. Now MIT plans to release a fresh batch of open online courses—and, for the first time, to offer certificates to outside students who complete them.

The credentials are part of a new, interactive e-learning venture, tentatively called MITx, that is expected to host “a virtual community of millions of learners around the world,” the institute will announce on Monday.

Here’s how it will work: MITx will give anyone free access to an online-course platform. Users will include students on the MIT campus, but also external learners like high-school seniors and engineering majors at other colleges. They’ll watch videos, answer questions, practice exercises, visit online labs, and take quizzes and tests. They’ll also connect with others working on the material.

We’re going to see these projects roll out pretty fast now, and it’s going to be combined, I think, with a growing backlash against the money spent on traditional education. Why are we spending so much money on Random State College, the argument will go, when anyone can get a credential from MIT for free (or nearly free)? 

And it’s a good question, really. With multiple measures (CLA, PP, CAAP) showing almost no gain in critical thinking skills or quantitative reasoning among undergraduates during college years what’s the point of supporting these institutions? 

On the face-to-face side, it’s really time to start using our face-to-face resources to greater effect. The bar will be set by free or nearly-free online options. If we can’t outperform them, we won’t survive, at least not in our current form.

On the online side, it’s worth confronting the openness as a privilege multiplier question now, rather than later. It’s comforting to think of these experiments as an addition to the current range of options available to students, and therefore existing outside the normal ethical space of college. The approach to OER so far has been well, it works for some people, and not for others — we don’t worry about the failures, we just headcount successes. It’s been education as bonus points, or worse, education as a Google product — hey, we gave it to you for free, if it doesn’t work for you, lump  it.

That was fine during the broad experimental period of Open Learning. As Open Learning becomes posited more and more as a broadly applicable solution, however, such nonchalance becomes more dangerous. Any system of education can “succeed” if student failure is seen purely a reflection on the student and not the learning design. But if Open Learning is pitched as a solution to the current economic crisis of higher education, we need to do whole a lot better than that. 

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