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Where does MITx fit into our education system?

The latest initiative in the OpenCourseWare movement offers certificates for class-completion

Starting this spring, you can enroll in MIT – sans tuition, and a tough admission process. You don’t even have to move to Cambridge – or for that matter, leave your study spot at Schulich. The university that started the OpenCourseWare (OCW) movement is extending its offerings beyond posting video recordings and notes from courses online, to a new program called MITx.

It is entirely free, but whereas OCW allows downloading of past course materials and recordings for perusal at the user’s own leisure, MITx requires actual enrolment in online courses. MITx courses will be coordinated by professors and research scientists, and students, will be able to earn certificates offered by a separate body, distinct from the name of MIT. MIT degrees, however, will not be attainable regardless of how many of these courses are taken; the website firmly states that “MIT awards MIT degrees only to those admitted to MIT through a highly selective admissions process.”

This, of course, is understandable – after all, universities depend on enrolled students to pay for the very courses they must offer. But this very phrase calls into question one of the purported reasons for the MITx initiative – to “break down barriers to education.” At the most basic level, online education can only be available to those who have online access, but even beyond this, assuming that all those who do require this sort of education have access to the internet, how much good will this new program do? While it’s true that offering free online courses and certification is a valiant step in providing educational materials to all those who wish to learn it, the fact that the certification is kept separate from the MIT name decreases the already sparse benefits that a mere certificate for a single course can subserve, especially in today’s job market.

For those who might be able to benifit most from this initiative – those who cannot pay for schools like MIT, or be accepted through their rigorous admissions process, but need to learn and most likely employ the skills taught in MIT’s courses – the most important aspect of education is perhaps not its inherent value, but its practical value in the workforce. And in this realm of job applications and resume-building, students really cannot consider this to be a meaningful substitute for a university degree, offered as it may be from one of the world’s finest institutions.

This is hardly MIT’s fault – it would be difficult for any university to offer more. MIT’s dedication to offering so much of its own course materials for free distinguishes it from most of the world’s universities – including our own. And in a world where higher learning is done for the sake of higher learning and enrichment, this would be a beautiful system – one that does indeed break down all of the barriers it seeks to. But because in our world, education is not only an end unto itself, but also a means of building resumes, of qualifying for skilled and technical jobs, and of competing in a changing job market, this new initiative offers little more to students than OCW already did.