MIT to Open Source Its Online Learning Platform, MITx

by Hap Aziz

Ten years ago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began offering online course materials free over the Internet through its OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiative. The OCW program allows people to view MIT course content and lectures online at no cost to the user (under specific licensing considerations). MIT’s intent is to make “course materials that are used in the teaching of almost all undergraduate and graduate subjects available on the web, free of charge, to any user anywhere in the world,” and to “serve as a model for university dissemination of knowledge in the Internet age” (source).

This week, MIT announced the MITx initiative, which is an open-source platform that will allow students to take MIT course content online, and even obtain certificate credentials. The MITx platform will be made available to other institutions for use (K-12 as well as higher education), and outside developers will be able to make enhancements to the platform as well. From the MIT news site:

“Creating an open learning infrastructure will enable other communities of developers to contribute to it, thereby making it self-sustaining,” said Anant Agarwal, an MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). “An open infrastructure will facilitate research on learning technologies and also enable learning content to be easily portable to other educational platforms that will develop” (source).

MIT’s stated purpose is to improve education at MIT as well as around the world, and the platform itself will be used in the institute’s ongoing research regarding online teaching and learning. However, MITx could represent much more to other academic institutions, especially those that are seeking alternatives to their current course management systems. MIT intends to make the OCW software infrastructure free to educational institutions, and it will work to establish a framework for institutions and other parties to contribute to the improvement of platform.

There are two threads running through MIT’s announcement. 1) There is the release of MIT-developed course content that learners around the world will be able to take, and they will be able to earn certification (though not from MIT directly). This is not intended to replace an actual MIT education, and although participation in the courses will be free of charge, the credentialing will involve a modest fee. Mark Smithers discusses some of the ramifications of this on his blog. 2) The platform for online content delivery is what MIT will be opening up and providing at no cost to other institutions, that may then utilize their own developed content. Indeed, a cottage industry will likely form around the development of robust course materials for the MITx platform. The question that immediately comes to mind is: “How does the MITx platform compare to systems such as Blackboard or Pearson’s new and “free” OpenClass software?” Unfortunately, that’s difficult to answer right now, as the software has not yet been released, thought that should happen early into 2012.

We can, however, consider the question from the broader context of considering “new” course or learning management system solutions for those that are currently in place at an institution. It is instructive to ask and answer the following three questions whenever the possibility of change comes up:

  1. What are the underlying issues driving the desire for change at an institution? Often, the desire to bring on (or at least examine) a new solution is not so much because of the new solution’s feature set or capabilities, but it is because of the perceived lack of capability or functionality within the current system for meeting existing needs.
  2. What are the logistical challenges to replacing or integrating a secondary system into an institution’s existing infrastructure? Often those innovators at an institution interested in driving positive change are not fully aware of (or have not considered) the potential and very significant disruption to the learner population. When surveying their learner populations, institutions commonly find that students are most interested in “consistency of technology implementation” in their online courses and programs.
  3. What will be the impact on institutional resources in replacing the current or implementing a secondary system? While “open source” or “free” are terms that give the impression of little investment required, there are often significant total cost of ownership issues that should be examined thoroughly before making any decisions, and this examination must include both academic as well as information technology support perspectives.

I admit that I am very intrigued by the MITx initiative, and I will be following closely the developments as they unfold in early 2012. The Academic Services team at SunGard Higher Education will be taking an in-depth look at both segments of the initiative, and we should have a detailed review shortly into the new year.



Filed under colleges and universities, education, Learning Management Systems, online education

3 responses to “MIT to Open Source Its Online Learning Platform, MITx

  1. I really enjoyed this post, Hap. It’s my impression that most institutions would not change LMS if it can be avoided due to the time and resources involved. The features and functionalities of the LMS are not different enough to compel change. Most institutions are compelled to change due to the sunsetting of WebCT/Angel or the overwhelming need to reduce costs without sacrificing functionality. The initial disruption of these types of platforms (MITx and OpenClass) is going to come from individual faculty members seeking to use them in their classes; institutions may feel increasing pressure to support two systems. We haven’t really seen this since the early 2000’s and it’s indicative of the immense changes in the market that we are seeing it now.

    • If faculty lead the movement to two LMS solutions, why would the number stop at two? I think that’s a valid concern that institutions have. Suppose an institution currently supports Blackboard and a faculty member or department push to bring Desire2Learn into the mix, would the institution say to the next faculty member or department (looking to bring in, say, OpenClass), “sorry, we are only doing two, and you missed your chance”? Certainly, there needs to be some criteria by which to determine what additional LMS solutions to consider, if institutions wishes to open that door. For example, is there any point at getting a second LMS that pretty much duplicates the feature set and functionality of the first? Will the end-user experience potentially be too fractured if widely divergent LMS solutions are implemented at the same institution? These discussions may not be settled in our lifetimes!

  2. Pingback: MIT to Open Source Its Online Learning Platform, MITx | Learning ... | iPads in kindergarten Best Practices |

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