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MIT to launch online-only, graded courses for free

Certificates to be available for fee

Earning an A from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will never be easy, but next spring, students in at least one class will be able to do it without meeting two major traditional requirements: paying a hefty chunk of change and showing up on campus.

The university announced today a plan to launch “MITx,’’ a set of specially designed Web-only classes that anyone can take for free. Those who earn passing marks may pay the school a small fee for an MITx certificate. Though it will not be an MIT diploma, it could help on a résumé, allowing students to prove mastery of individual subjects without earning full degrees.

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The classes are expected to feature short interactive videos, busy discussion forums, and realistic simulations that can stand in for laboratory experiments, all under the supervision of the university’s professors. Grading will be done by computers or by students checking one another’s work. The software MIT develops to deliver the classes will also be freely available, allowing other institutions to adapt it for their own efforts.

“The time is right. The time is now. Many of these technologies are just coming to fruition,’’ said Anant Agarwal, director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, who is developing the delivery software. “We already have a professor who’s using an online social network of MIT alums to help educate students in programming. Just imagine expanding that in Facebook-fashion to tens or hundreds of millions of people around the world.’’

MIT’s project is one of many flourishing new online initiatives that are supplementing or replacing the old way of learning: sitting in a classroom listening to a professor deliver a monologue.

‘The time is right. The time is now. Many of these technologies are just coming to fruition.’

Anant Agarwal Director, MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory
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The online education market was once dominated by for-profit providers that charged high fees for content of questionable quality. But in the last decade it has changed, as online learning has gone mainstream. Many traditional colleges and universities now offer online courses or degrees, typically at the undergraduate or master’s level.

The offerings are far better than before. “It used to be you would just take a classroom course, shove it on the Web, and hope for the best,’’ said Andrew Ng, a Stanford University computer scientist. “I think of that as the afterthought model for online education.’’

By contrast, many classes now feature specially designed snappy videos and frequent quizzes, which have been shown repeatedly in psychological studies to be far more effective than static films of long lectures.

The classes’ popularity has surged. More than 6.1 million current college students took an online course during the fall 2010 term, according to a survey of 2,500 schools, and nearly one-third of students have taken at least one at some point. Head counts for online courses grew 10 percent last year, compared with 2 percent for traditional courses.

Ng led one of three classes in computer science that Stanford threw open to all comers this semester - free, as at MIT. Tens of thousands enrolled.

Web-only institutions, such as Western Governors University, a nonprofit college that allows students to complete courses at their own pace, are also seeing jumps in enrollment every year.

Demand is mushrooming in part because laid-off workers are seeking training that can give them an edge in job searches without requiring a full-time or on-campus commitment, said Robert Mendenhall, president of Western Governors. “Online learning allows them to fit further education into the cracks of their lives.’’

MIT will choose a course to serve as a prototype for its initiative in the spring, but it will need to surmount several hurdles before launching anything like a full-scale online school. “Something like this doesn’t happen overnight,’’ Agarwal said.

For instance, math homework should be easy to grade en masse - computers can check it automatically - but what about writing assignments?

Not necessarily a problem, said Agarwal. MIT professors are working on technology that automatically grades essays.

Agarwal said that in theory, any class taught on campus at MIT - even a chemistry course with a hands-on lab requirement - might eventually have an online analogue. “I’ve lived long enough to know that the ingenuity and inventiveness of the students and engineers is such that you never say never,’’ he said. “No, we might not replicate the smell of a lab. But then again, that might be better.’’

MITx’s classes will be offered at no charge, unless participants want grades and a certificate. That will cost them a small amount that has not yet been set. “The goal here is to do something good for the world, to reach large numbers of people who can really learn this stuff,’’ said MIT’s provost, Rafael Reif. “If we want to reach large numbers, the fee has to be modest.’’

Most schools do not give credentials for individual courses, as MIT plans to. But the idea could catch on, said Mendenhall, president of Western Governors.

“It’s a really important part of higher ed that we ought to do more of,’’ he said. “Ultimately, employers are looking for skills. Right now, degrees are a proxy for skills - but there are smaller units that could have value in the marketplace.’’

Mary Carmichael can be reached at mary.carmichael@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mary_carmichael.

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