AS TUITIONS rise, family incomes stagnate, and the needs of students evolve, there’s no reason to think the American university of the future will look just like the current version. Indeed, great opportunities await schools that recognize this sooner rather than later. For that reason, the newly announced MITx initiative for online learning should be a boon not just for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is sponsoring it, but potentially for a region whose economic well-being depends on the adaptability of its universities.
MIT has made course materials available over the Internet for a decade. But MITx is far more ambitious; the institute describes it as an “interactive online learning platform’’ that will complement the classroom and lab experience for traditional residential students, while also creating new options for people around the world. Under the initiative, those who demonstrate mastery of material covered in MIT courses could obtain a certificate, which they can then show to employers and others. The institute could reinforce its image - and potentially create new revenues through fees that it could reinvest in academics.
Meanwhile, MITx also represents an important milestone for distance learning, an idea once seen mainly as a mere substitute for face-to-face education but has promise all its own.
To its great benefit, Boston has been deeply invested in a model of higher education that involves professors and students sitting in the same physical classroom. Even as other former manufacturing centers of the Northeast and Midwest have withered since the 1970s, the continued leadership of MIT - and its counterpart up Mass. Ave., Harvard - has provided both economic and cultural ballast for Cambridge and Boston.
Yet conditions in the broader economy have proved quite fluid. Even as local universities and local tech firms have long looked nervously toward West Coast competitors, another potent challenge is growing a train ride away. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has moved to supplement his city’s economy by supporting new tech initiatives, most notably a new technology-centered offshoot of Cornell University.
The initiative should be a boon not just for MIT, but potentially for the whole region.
Such developments offer all the more reason for local institutions not to take their current success for granted - and for Boston-area universities to be at the forefront of reinventing the region’s signature industry.