Hybrid online/on-campus master's degree promises to 'democratize' MIT

Is MIT's gamble on cheaper, more accessible education enough to revive ed-tech's dreams of revolutionizing higher ed?

Melanie Stetson Freeman
In this 2013 photo, MIT staff film a biology class for to be used for the pioneering edX online course system. Yesterday, MIT opened a new chapter in online education, announcing the start of a hybrid online/on-campus master's degree.

Three years after the word "MOOC" first sent shivers up the spines of university presidents, who feared that massive online open courses would do away with traditional education, the vaunted ‘revolution’ has failed to arrive, according to many critics, including MIT itself

“Here’s what will truly change higher education: online degrees that are seen as official,” the New America Foundation’s Kevin Carey challenged digital learning providers this spring in The New York Times, highlighting the limited usefulness of classes without formal certifications. 

Someone was listening. On Wednesday, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology unveiled a hybrid off-campus/on-campus master’s degree program that may revive hope in technology’s potential to transform higher ed, providing a broader array of talented students with life-changing opportunities at a cost that’s lower for schools and students alike. 

Beginning in February, top students who take a semester of online Supply Chain Management (SCM) courses will be invited to apply for a second semester on-campus, earning a master’s degree.

In what’s being called “inverted admission,” the plan gives students a chance to test out what MIT has to offer before committing their time and money to a degree – and vice versa.

It’s not a free ride by any means: the on-campus semester charges typical tuition, around $33,000, and the online courses themselves, plus proctored exams, come to $1500. But compared to a year at full cost, it presents a novel way for both students and administration to affordably increase their opportunities.

“The most important thing is to democratize access to MIT,” university President L. Rafael Reif told the Boston Globe.

Not everyone will make the cut. In its pilot year, at least, there is only room for 40. But for the same $1500, students who keep up their grades in class and exams can still receive a so-called “MicroMaster credential” in SCM. And for the merely curious (or less academically inclined) who aren't seeking credentials, the class is free, and anyone may sign up for courses regardless of their goals or abilities.

Not everyone wants to study supply chain management, which program leader Prof. Yossi Sheffi described on Twitter as making sure “supermarket chains are full, hospitals have supplies and factories get the parts needed to make a product.” But universities and degree-seekers around the world will want to pay attention to MIT’s bold move, which could signal the next big shift in digital education – and, eventually, in-your-seat, face-to-face learning as well.

“I’d rather we disrupt ourselves than be disrupted by somebody else,” Mr. Reif told Inside Higher Ed, using one of tech’s favorite buzzwords.

The major ‘disruption’ here isn’t online learning, or even the MOOC model, which a Harvard-MIT edX partnership helped popularize in 2012. A variety of other universities have also experimented with some sort of inverted admission, but never has a school of MIT’s prestige offered the possibility of a degree.

Skepticism persists about online learning’s effectiveness, particularly given its record of minuscule completion rates. But Mr. Carey believes the real blame for MOOCs not yet delivering on their transformative potential belongs to universities themselves.

Colleges can offer all the lifelong learning they want, but so long as schools weren’t willing to offer degrees for cheap, online courses, students still needed to trade ever-rising in-person tuition dollars for a job credential, he pointed out in The New York Times. 

That makes MIT’s approach seem pretty noble: finally, a more affordable way to get the same high-caliber degree, no matter your academic record, so long as you can prove your mettle.

But don’t hold out hope for an MIT diploma earned entirely from your couch. The university doesn’t support online-only degree programs, according to the Boston Globe.

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