Higher education on the move: Harvard and MIT convene summit on online learning and the future of residential education

Mar 08, 2013 by Michael Patrick Rutter
About 200 university representatives, leaders in online learning, and members of the media convened on March 3 and 4 for "Online Learning and the Future of Residential Education," a summit hosted by the presidents of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Credit: Dominick Reuter

hen it comes to online education, the future is now. And it's changing fast.

That was an overriding message when the presidents of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) hosted a summit on March 3 and 4 titled "Online and the Future of Residential Education." An evening of dinner and discussion in the stately Radcliffe Gymnasium was followed by a day of interactive panel discussions at the chic MIT Media Lab complex.

About 200 university representatives, leaders in online learning, and members of the media came to listen but also to engage. The online leaders included edX, the not-for-profit founded by the two host institutions, as well as Coursera, Khan Academy, and Kaplan.

By design, the conference was, like many a modern classroom, flipped, so that interaction was emphasized over lecturing.

Even with high-tech demonstrations, ranging from virtual-annotation tools to 3-D models of the Giza Pyramids, and a beamed-in discussion with Salman Kahn, who helped to lead the online learning movement, the concept of campus emerged as the real star of the summit.

"It is simply a tool," Sanjay Sarma said of online learning, reframing a phenomenon that others have hailed as a revolution, disruption, or new wave for higher education.

Sarma, the new director of digital learning at MIT, meant to convey that, as with all breakthrough innovations, context matters. "Intel inside" or "powered by " are mere marketing efforts without the requisite smartphones or tablets.

For Sarma, an authority on modern manufacturing, the best laboratory for learning remains the campus. With new technologies, in fact, the campus experience can be tweaked, bettered, and of course, in the tradition of MIT students, hacked.

Anant Agarwal, president of edX and a faculty member at MIT, relayed two admissions success stories that began with clicks made halfway around the world.

A student from Mongolia (who had to travel a great distance to find the nearest, lone Internet access point) and another in China who were taking Argawal's edX course, MITx 6.002x, "Circuits and Electronics," were so exceptional—performing at near-genius levels—that Agarwal made it his mission to help bring them to the attention of his own school's admissions office. They both got into MIT.

On the Harvard campus, the arrival of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and other digital dissemination platforms for teaching and learning have provided many faculty members with their first Hollywood closeups.

"By putting their work out there for all to see, they can compare what they are doing with one another," said Harvard Provost Alan Garber.

Courses and lectures, no longer bound by classroom walls, have become sharable and even mashable, working together. These days, the best lecture on accounting can be dropped into an existing course like an add-on mobile app.

Garber noted the positive pressure of HarvardX, leading many faculty members to rethink their teaching on campus and, more important, to proffer best practices, tools, and teachable moments.

Rob Lue, professor of the practice of molecular and cellular biology and faculty director of HarvardX, distilled examples like these into what became the underlying question of the summit: How can the effective, time-tested DNA of campus bricks and mortar be woven into the fabric of what is happening online?

The "primordial soup" is here, Lue said, and it is "ours" to stir and simmer it into something magnificent.

MIT President Rafael Reif noted the "tremendous enthusiasm" at the conference. While admitting that he was "in a room full of believers," he said that that no one shied away from the hard questions, from costs to institutional barriers to low completion rates of free online courses, to the potential further stratification of elite universities.

Reflecting on the early lessons learned, Reif had a sense of measured optimism about the future of residential learning. What he called a "movement" was one that was happening from the bottom up.

Driven by faculty eager to rethink their teaching and by students raised in an age where the online/in-person divide has disappeared (texting while talking while watching), university leaders like himself may eventually act more like coaches and Sherpas than top-down directors.

Agarwal went one step further. edX, he said, was formed by Harvard and MIT to enable innovation and provide a sandbox for dozens of higher education institutions to experiment collectively with teaching, learning, and revenue models.

While enterprises like edX were "businesses that needed to be self-sustaining" the parallel aim, he added, was to "rise all boats."

Framed by a glass window overlooking the Charles River, the body of water that helped spawn two world-class universities, the possibility of being able to "rise all boats" seemed more than metaphoric.

Explore further: Unintended consequences: More high school math, science linked to more dropouts

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Harvard, MIT announce online learning partnership

May 02, 2012

(AP) -- Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have joined forces to offer free online courses in a project aimed at attracting millions of online learners around the world, the universities announced Wednesday.

More top universities to offer free online courses

Feb 21, 2013

More of the world's elite universities are joining the rush to offer "massive open online courses," but it's still uncertain whether so-called MOOCs will help more students earn college degrees.

Elite colleges transform online higher education

Aug 05, 2012

(AP) — When the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offered its first free online course this spring, Ashwith Rego jumped at the chance to learn from some of the world's leading researchers — without leaving his ...

Lessons learned from MITx's prototype course

Jul 16, 2012

Last December, MIT announced the creation of MITx, an ambitious project to recreate the MIT classroom experience online; in March, the MITx prototype course — “Circuits and Electronics,” or ...

College credit for online courses gains momentum

Nov 16, 2012

The American Council on Education, a nonprofit organization that represents most of the nation's college and university presidents, is preparing to weigh in on massive open online courses - MOOCs, for short - a new way of ...

Coursera makes top college courses free online

Jul 22, 2012

Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng share a vision in which anyone, no matter how destitute, can expand their minds and prospects with lessons from the world's top universities.

Recommended for you

Congressional rift over environment influences public

21 hours ago

American citizens are increasingly divided over the issue of environmental protection and seem to be taking their cue primarily from Congress, finds new research led by a Michigan State University scholar.

Decoding ethnic labels

Jul 30, 2014

If you are of Latin American descent, do you call yourself Chicano? Latino? Hispanic?

Local education politics 'far from dead'

Jul 29, 2014

Teach for America, known for recruiting teachers, is also setting its sights on capturing school board seats across the nation. Surprisingly, however, political candidates from the program aren't just pushing ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

rsklyar
1 / 5 (1) Mar 10, 2013
Impertinent stealing on the move: Harvard and MIT - https://connect.i...sr/blogs