The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has significantly lowered the price of a world class education.
Starting in the spring of 2012, the elite school will be making some of its most popular courses available online to anyone with an Internet connection and a desire to learn. The cost? Free.
"The courses are going to be rigorous, are going to be to the MIT standard," said Nate Nickerson, the school's director of communications.
The new initiative, dubbed MITx, will have no admissions requirements or application process. Participants will be able to access course materials, interact with faculty and communicate with other students.
There will be no charge to take a class, but students can pay a modest fee to demonstrate their mastery of the course and earn a certificate of completion. The cost for this credential has not yet been set, and is likely to vary depending on a student's location and circumstances, Nickerson said.
"The affordability is central to this," he said. "This is imagined to be an international sort of thing and what is affordable in one place is not in another."
In order to avoid confusion, the credentials will not be awarded by MIT itself, but by a separate not-for-profit organization created within the institute.
But prospective online students should not start salivating over MIT's course catalog quite yet. When MITx launches, it will offer a very small number of courses---perhaps just one. The curriculum will expand over time, its direction driven by student demand and faculty interest.
"Courses that will be popular and that can be done well will be the ones that we start with," Nickerson said.
Because of MIT's focus on science and technology rather than more esoteric subjects, Nickerson expects the MITx courses will be helpful for students' professional development, he said.
For 10 years, MIT has offered course materials online through OpenCourseWare, a program that publishes reading lists, class assignments, exams and videotaped lectures for almost all of the institute's undergraduate and graduate classes. OpenCourseWare, however, does not offer the faculty interaction and the opportunity for certification that MITx will provide.
Many other top-tier universities---including Yale, Carnegie Mellon and Stanford---offer free online course materials, but opportunities to work with faculty and receive certification are much harder to find.
It is too soon to tell how, or if, the launch of MITx will impact trends in online learning, said Kevin Guthrie, president of ITHAKA, a not-for-profit organization focused on digital technologies in academics.
"This signals that the private elite research universities are going to be investing in online learning in ways they have not previously," Guthrie said. "The brands and notoriety of these institutions could well accelerate the acceptance of these new technologies in academia."