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Is M.I.T giving away the store?

Ubiquity, Volume 2001 Issue May, May 1 - May 31, 2001 | BY Robert C. Heterick 


Full citation in the ACM Digital Library

The recent decision by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to spend $100 million to place instructional material for all its courses online has raised a few eyebrows and not a few hackles. The plan is to make all the usual course materials -- course notes, homework assignments, reading lists, etc. -- available on the Web. The university intends to standardize the Web pages, provide the resources to keep them up-to- date and make them freely available.

The folks at M.I.T. realize that in doing so they are not creating a distance learning program. That seems worth observing as, unfortunately, many institutions of higher education seem to believe that placing the course syllabus and faculty lecture notes online is somehow tantamount to creating some kind of asynchronous learning environment. To be sure, those institutions are aided and abetted by the advertising hype of some of our leading application service providers who are wont to claim that they can "get your course online in 15 minutes."

Most people who have developed serious Web applications, whether for learning applications or otherwise, recognize that a Web-based application is as different from a textbook as a textbook is from a lecture. Digitizing a textbook and adding a few graphics (or even film clips) is simply an Internet-accessible book. It fails to either understand or take advantage of the unique characteristics of the "Web" by simply translating a very linear, robust physical medium to a vastly different and much richer non-linear one. As M.I.T. seems to recognize, transferring the syllabus and course notes to the Web simply makes lecture-supporting material more conveniently accessible.

It is increasingly clear that the learning applications that will come to dominate the Web (or its successors) will take full advantage of the non- linearity of the "Web" and its potential for instantaneous feedback and learner interaction. The richness of the medium at high bandwidth admits of a learning environment in which the learner becomes "immersed." It also lends itself to what the management folks have come to call "mass customization." Its very non-linearity offers the opportunity to permit users to work their way through learning materials in a way that best fits their individual learning styles. No two learners need to proceed along the same route nor at the same pace. Hyper-linking provides rich possibilities for serendipitous learning in ways that the original designers of the product could never have foreseen.

This new learning environment will bear no resemblance to today's faculty lecture notes or the textbook.

For some true believers this has come to signify the demise of the textbook and the lecture. If recent history surrounding the introduction of new technologies is any guide, no learning strategy will disappear. Rather a new richness of learning strategies will emerge, and learners will pick and choose amongst them for those that seem to offer the most value for their particular learning style and learning requirement. Lectures have worked well for many purposes for thousands of years and will continue to do so. The same can be said about the written word in one form or another.

However, it won't be many decades before hyper-linked learning environments delivered over something like today's Web will come to dominate most learning situations. Learning communities will continue, but they will need not be geographically anchored as they have been historically. Libraries will continue but they will become increasingly "virtual," providing full text availability anywhere, anytime.

As M.I.T. appears to recognize, there still will be unique value-adds provided by universities, not the least will be access to subject specialists that we today call faculty. There still will be a need to certify credentials, still a need to devise a curriculum and still a need for overall management of the learning process. One has only to look at the route of online brokerage firms for an example of what is required by the general public. And, for young people just out of high school, there still will be a need for environments that aid in the transition from teenager to adult. Such environments will continue to provide a rich set of learning experiences where failed growing experiments are not greatly penalized and a set of social skills for a future career can be learned and honed.

Is M.I.T. "giving away the store?" Only if you think faculty lecture notes will come to dominate Web-enabled learning as they have historically dominated faculty lecture. Will individual faculty working in "splendid isolation" create the Web-enabled learning environments of the future as they have historically created the textbook? Only if you think those learning environments of the future will read like textbooks.

However, the intention of M.I.T. (and I am sure there will be many others) to make the current materials freely accessible does underscore an interesting question. Will the university of the future be a profit-making venture? That, of course, is one very possible, and not without merit, outcome. It certainly seems the route that education's closest analogy, health care, has followed as it transitioned from physicians in private practice to large health maintenance organizations. On the other hand, will the M.I.T. example translate into a future in which institutions of higher learning develop and freely distribute immersion learning tools relying instead for income generated by providing subject expertise, coaching, credentialing and education management?

The former is the path being trodden by many institutions as witnessed by their treatment of research, outreach and athletic programs. The latter is more consistent with the historic role of universities in society. It is easy to "fall" into the former -- in which case you see bundled course content as a "gold mine." It takes a fair amount of planning to position your institution for the latter -- in which disaggregated services represent the unique value-add of the institution. Institutions of the quality of M.I.T. can make either choice. It will be interesting to see which it will be.

Dr. Heterick is a past President of Educom, Vice President Emeritus at Virginia Tech and currently a Fellow at the Center for Organizational Learning and Technological Advancement at Virginia Tech. This article first appeared in The Learning MarketSpace, which is a publication of The Leadership Forum at the Center for Academic Transformation.


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