MIT Open Learning
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MIT Open Learning

MITx inspires new educational programs and technology

The evolution of MITx online courses created a number of technological advancements and tools

A young woman wearing glasses works at a laptop, with a young man in the background next to her
Photo by Jake Belcher

Since its first Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) on the Introduction to Computer Science using Python launched ten years ago, the MITx program has grown and expanded its online course catalog to over 200 unique courses in a huge variety of topics. Along the way, the technologies and learning science that have gone into creating new MITx courses helped pave the way for a number of new educational tools and programs that both enhance teaching and learning on MIT’s campus, and for the millions of learners who have enrolled in an online course. Importantly, these efforts include new opportunities for learners to accelerate their academic pursuits.

Online assessments and rapid feedback
Early on in MITx’s evolution, the power of digital technology became quickly evident, especially in the feedback loop between professors and learners. With online course assessments, students could receive instant feedback, allowing them to quickly understand and overcome any roadblocks and test their knowledge again to ensure they mastered those concepts.

For learners in MITx courses, learning by doing the assessments is one of the most effective learning techniques. Although some courses include summative assessments that play the role of an exam, testing what a learner has mastered, a majority of the auto-graded assessments in our MOOCs are intended as formative — key elements of the process of learning itself.

The MITx catalog contains 24,630 unique video segments, over 41,456 instructional html blocks, and more than 58,911 unique interactive auto-graded assessments that take advantage of the many dozens of different kinds of sophisticated problems that MITx and many others have developed on the edX platform.

Learning modules
Many of the early MITx courses were the equivalent length of a full semester MIT course, in terms of content as well as rigor. For example, 6.002x ran for 14 weeks, including a midterm and final exam, weekly problem sets, lab-like simulations for working with circuits, and numerous checkpoint questions meant to check understanding throughout the material.

MITx courses have evolved over time, with many faculty utilizing a “modules’’ format where two or three or more MOOCs make up the equivalent of one MIT on-campus course. Modules provide more flexible timelines for online learners, while also allowing faculty to create additional materials that may not fit into a semester-long course. MITx has over 900 total course runs from its catalog of 140 full courses and 80 modules, all based on 153 MIT on-campus courses.

Integrating accessibility in all online courses
From the start, MITx has considered how learners with disabilities access an MITx course. Accessibility works to add pathways to courses that learners use to navigate and participate in digital learning environments. For example, a deaf learner engages with video by reading the captions rather than listening to the audio. This is a way to design courses to meet many learners’ needs.

Mary Ziegler, Program Manager for Online Accessibility, collaborates with MIT faculty and staff in the MITx course development process, which includes guiding them to think about accessible pathways and formats learners need in integrated and effective ways.

Learners with disabilities are also welcome to request accommodations. This request process provides equitable access in addition to valuable feedback to the course development teams — improving the courses for future learners with disabilities and ultimately making MITx courses inclusive for all learners.

MITx MicroMasters program
MIT pioneered the MicroMasters Program, which involves a series of graduate-level online courses, each with the opportunity for the learner to earn a certificate. A learner can earn the MicroMasters program credential by completing the entire suite of courses as well as one or more proctored online exams. The unique value of a MicroMasters program is that it creates a pathway to credit, usually toward a Master’s degree, either at MIT or at one of dozens of other universities. If a learner who has completed a MicroMasters program is admitted into a corresponding Master’s program, their earned credits can count toward approximately a full term — drastically reducing both the cost and the physical time on campus.

Part of the impetus for these programs was the idea of “democratizing” admissions. Traditional admissions processes use testing and past experience to make a judgment call on whether or not a student can be successful in the program. A MicroMasters learner has proof on hand from prior performance in the MITx online program. Any learner who wants to try to take the online courses can enroll — there are no barriers to entry (though courses do list suggested prerequisite skills). The MicroMasters program allows learners to try the courses for free and if they feel confident, they can then pay a small fee to get on the certificate track. This has resulted in a more varied applicant pool, including people who may have thought they weren’t up to the rigor of a Master’s program. The credential is also valuable as a stand-alone certificate that has gained much traction in the professional world.

As subjects taught at MIT incorporate emerging technologies and pedagogies, MITx will continue to advance the educational tools and programs to support the teaching and learning journeys for all.

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