What will MITx teach us?

Last month, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced MITx, saying “MITx will offer a portfolio of MIT courses through an online interactive learning platform that will:

  • organize and present course material to enable students to learn at their own pace
  • feature interactivity, online laboratories and student-to-student communication
  • allow for the individual assessment of any student’s work and allow students who demonstrate their mastery of subjects to earn a certificate of completion awarded by MITx
  • operate on an open-source, scalable software infrastructure in order to make it continuously improving and readily available to other educational institutions.”

We find this fascinating.

This development suggests that MIT has decided that merely offering access to content, powerful as doing so is, isn’t really sufficient to ensure actual learning. MIT’s OpenCourseWare initiative, now completing its first decade, includes nearly 2,100 MIT courses and has been used by more than 100 million people.  That’s certainly a grand success using the traditional “butts in seats” metric. But because assessment isn’t part of that package, they don’t know to what extent “use” correlates to actual incorporation of the material to the extent that users can demonstrate some form of mastery.

While no MIT profs will be performing instructor duties, the platform design is incorporating social learning technologies, to put learners in contact with one another.  There are aspirations to create  “a virtual community of millions of learners around the world.”

This is not just a public service. It’s also research project. MIT will undoubtedly be looking to see how well various online pedagogical methods work on a population which hasn’t made it through  their highly selective admissions process,  and which ones work well for their residential population.  What will they find? That the gifted students who make it through their selection process can learn from any process, no matter how ill-conceived?  That the kinds of courses traditionally offered to MIT students require significant adjustment in order to develop mastery in students who don’t come to the subject with MIT grade intellectual firepower?

And of course what are the implications for those of us in corporate training? To be successful, training has to result not only in intellectual mastery of the material we present, but also in actual behavior change on the job.  We think incorporating opportunities for learners to reflect on the implications of training materials in the company of peers and coaches is critical to achieving behavioral change, because work is almost always a collaborative process.  Wouldn’t it be something if those smart folks at MIT were able to prove it matters for intellectual mastery as well?