MIT launches free online 'fully automated' course

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education correspondent

image captionMIT is creating an online "MITx", offering courses to students anywhere in the world. Pic: Jon Fildes

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one of the world's top-rated universities, has announced its first free course which can be studied and assessed completely online.

An electronics course, beginning in March, will be the first prototype of an online project, known as MITx.

The interactive course is designed to be fully automated, with successful students receiving a certificate.

The US university says it wants MITx to "shatter barriers to education".

This ground-breaking scheme represents a significant step forward in the use of technology to deliver higher education.

Automated university

There are already online degree courses, but the MIT proposal is unusual in that it is inviting students anywhere in the world, without charge or prior entrance requirements, to study for a certificate carrying the MIT brand.

image captionMIT wants to experiment with how much can be taught through online courses Pic: Jon Fildes

MIT, along with many other leading universities, makes its course material available online, but the MITx scheme takes this a step further by creating an accredited course specifically for online students.

Study materials and the awarding of grades are all provided online.

Before Christmas, the Boston-based university announced its intention to create MITx.

On Monday it set out how this will be put into practice, with the creation of the course 6.002x: Circuits and Electronics, based on the campus-based course of the same name.

This is not a "watered down" version of the campus course or "any less intense", says a university spokesman.

The main difference is that the MITx version has been designed for online students, with a virtual laboratory, e-textbooks, online discussions and videos that are the equivalent of a lecture. It is expected to take 10 hours per week and will run until June.

Anant Agarwal, director of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, who will be one of the course teachers, says it has been "designed to try to keep it engaging".

"There are interactive exercises to see if they've understood," says Prof Agarwal.

Although there are no formal entry requirements, he says students will need to have a knowledge of maths and science.

'Honour code'

In this prototype stage, the online assessment will depend on an "honour code" in which home students will commit to honest behaviour. But in future, the university says, there will be mechanisms for checking identity and verifying work.

image captionOnline courses will be available whenever students want to study

After the first electronics course, it is expected that the university will roll out courses in areas such as biology, maths and physics.

MIT's provost, Rafael Reif, says the university wants to use this experiment as a way of finding out what can be delivered by online courses and what needs to be supported by face-to-face interaction with staff.

Prof Reif, speaking from Boston, said this type of accreditation could be valuable for training people in the workforce.

"It's quite possible that employers will want to find out about the courses we offer," he said.

But the open access project will also have to address some of the questions around the relationship between traditional campus degrees and online courses - particularly when students at top US universities are paying fees in excess of $50,000 (£31,670) per year.

MIT is making a distinction between the certificate on offer for online students and the fully-fledged degree available to campus-based students. It will also make the MITx material available for its own students.

The university says it has "earmarked a few million dollars" for the project and will look to philanthropists for potential future funding. But the university, famous for its science and technology research, has its own endowment currently worth $8.5bn (£5.4bn).

This marks another stage in the global development of online education.

MIT, which features at the top end of international league tables, says it can only teach a tiny fraction of the people who might like to study at the university. Developing a parallel online service is a way of reaching a much larger, international group of students.

An increasing number of universities have been making lectures and resources available online. The iTunes U service, which is the academic version of iTunes, has more than 500,000 lectures available for free download. The Open University and Stanford have had more than 40 million downloads.

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