While students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology pay thousands of dollars for courses, the university will announce a new program on Monday allowing anyone anywhere to take M.I.T. courses online free of charge — and for the first time earn official certificates for demonstrating mastery of the subjects taught.“There are many people who would love to augment their education by having access to M.I.T. content, people who are very capable to earn a certificate from M.I.T.,” said L. Rafael Reif, the provost, in a conference call with reporters Friday.While access to the software will be free, there will most likely be an “affordable” charge, not yet determined, for a credential.“I think for someone to feel they’re earning something, they ought to pay something, but the point is to make it extremely affordable,” Mr. Reif said. “The most important thing is that it’ll be a certificate that will clearly state that a body sanctioned by M.I.T. says you have gained mastery.”
Courses like this are becoming more common, and this is a very good thing — online courses are often cheaper, more convenient and easier to schedule into a busy life than their counterparts in classrooms and lecture halls. M.I.T. has long been at the forefront of this movement, and this latest development doesn’t disappoint. The credential in particular is a strong selling point, addressing the common criticism that online programs don’t provide students with a “real” degree. With prestigious institutions like M.I.T. embracing online education, these programs are moving out of the periphery and into the mainstream.An important next step: a body of employers should develop a set of policies for assessing and using online credentials in lieu of traditional degrees. How much mastery should a student demonstrate across how many (and which) subjects before employers will accept certificates as equivalent to BA or other degrees? State governments might want to get involved; ultimately this approach will allow more citizens of a state to acquire useful knowledge and become more employable at a lower cost than the current setup. It is in the interest of a state’s economic development to support the creation of alternative educational approach.To other universities we offer the Biblical advice: Go thou and do likewise. A new educational system is being born; get with the program or end up as road kill.