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Take Free Online Classes, Get Course Credit at MIT

Passing a free online course isn’t as meaningful as taking the same class for credit on a college campus. But that could be changing.
October 7, 2015

MIT is taking perhaps its biggest step yet to combine free online classes with its traditional on-campus instruction. The university announced Wednesday at its Solve conference that it will allow students to obtain one of its master’s degrees by doing half of the coursework online—from anywhere, for free, without any admissions tests—and then doing the other half in a single semester on campus.

MIT President L. Rafael Reif on the Solve stage earlier this week.

This blended online-offline offering is an experiment: it will be available, at least for now, only for MIT’s one-year program in supply chain management. Nonetheless, it is a significant endorsement of the idea that massive open online courses, or MOOCs, will help reshape how universities operate.

Typically only about three dozen students are in the supply chain master’s program each year. But now anyone will be allowed to take the first semester of classes for free on edX, the online service that offers courses from MIT, Harvard, UC Berkeley, and other schools. Then, if their online coursework is good enough and they pass an exam at the end of the semester (by going to a proctoring center near where they live), they can earn a credential that MIT is calling a “MicroMaster’s.” If they want to go on to the second semester and earn the full master’s in supply chain management, they can formally apply. Having been granted the MicroMaster’s, MIT says, will “significantly enhance” their chances of gaining acceptance. The program will increase in size to make room for students coming in this way.

The MIT campus.

Yossi Sheffi, who directs MIT’s Center for Transportation and Logistics, said he hopes to get more of the “cream of the crop” of students from around the world now that the online classes will give administrators detailed data about each student’s aptitude.

“This approach basically inverts the traditional admission process. I believe that’s a very powerful concept,” said MIT’s president, Rafael Reif. “Applicants do not have to hope that we guess right about them, because they have the chance to prove in advance that they can do the work.”

What happens if the students don’t get in to complete the master’s? There’s no guarantee that prospective employers will think much of a MicroMaster’s on its own. But MIT says that at least two other schools, the Zaragoza Logistics Center in Spain and the Malaysia Institute for Supply Chain Innovation, are considering giving course credit to people with the credential as MIT will do. Presumably other business schools could follow suit.

MIT is not the first top-tier school to offer graduate-level online classes for credit. Georgia Tech, for instance, has a master’s program in computer science that can be taken entirely over the Internet. But that program is not open to anyone—students must go through Georgia Tech’s application process and pay to enroll.

MIT’s efforts to give away course material online go back decades, but the institute increased its commitment in 2011 with its creation of MITx, which has not only videotaped lectures but also offers interactive ways for students to take quizzes and join in discussions. In the years since, MIT, Harvard, and private providers such as Coursera and Udacity have dramatically expanded the number of free classes they offer, in everything from computer programming to the humanities.

Whether MOOCs will meaningfully democratize access to education has been debated intensely on many campuses. Some research has shown that MOOCs are not drawing massive numbers of people who otherwise couldn’t get college-level instruction. About three-quarters of enrollees already have a degree and are merely interested in continuing education (see “What Are MOOCs Good For?”) for fun or for professional development. And for many universities, offering MOOCs is perhaps primarily a way to improve the on-campus experience. These schools can use the online classes to create a “flipped classroom,” in which students can view videos of lectures and read related materials online on their own time, then come to class mainly for discussions, lab work, or other experiences that work best in person.

In fact, the in-person experience remains so coveted that MIT administrators should be confident that letting anyone take one semester of the supply chain master’s program for free online won’t really reduce the number of people willing to pay thousands of dollars to do that same semester on campus. Jonathan Haber, an education researcher and author of MOOCs, points out that students at other colleges have tended to decline opportunities to take online versions of on-campus classes for huge discounts.

Haber adds, though, that this could change as schools get better at assessing online students and, in turn, become more confident about giving them course credit for completing the classes. Eventually, students might use credit from a few MOOCs and, say, work experience in a “gap year” to shorten their undergraduate tenure (and the attendant costs) from four years to three.

If that happens, MIT’s decision to offer credit for free classes might be viewed as an important precedent.

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