Samantha Sharf | From campus to computer screen
Elements of Style | MIT shows that learning doesn't have to end with graduation
January 10, 2012, 11:58 pm · Updated January 12, 2012, 12:10 am·
Elements of Style
Education comes in many forms.
One afternoon during my freshman year I met with my advisor in his cozy campus office. After our bi-annual chat about my classes and career goals, he offered a candid observation. He worried that much of what I said in his classroom was lost on the other students because of my soft voice and tendency to mumble.
With my blessing, he picked up the phone and proceeded to call around the University in search of someone who could help. I returned to my dorm room with a list of potential speech coaches, feeling very fortunate to attend a school like Penn.
Across our urban campus there are constantly opportunities for students to connect with peers and professors through face-to-face interactions. At best, these connections can lead to both academic knowledge and personal growth.
Over break, however, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology introduced an educational medium that removes such interactions. M.I.T.x — a platform for free online education — will open MIT course material and professors to students around the world.
The software, expected to launch this semester, will enable anyone with internet access to take part in world-class learning regardless of their past academic achievements (or lack thereof). The interactive service will allow students to track and assess their progress.
MIT announced that the software will “operate on an open-source, scalable software infrastructure in order to make it continuously improving and readily available to other educational institutions.” Penn would be remiss not to jump on the opportunity to be a part of educational history.
M.I.T.x may at first seem to contrast the traditional college experience that can give way to interactions such as mine.
Facetime or not, I still have a strong desire to keep learning. I want to continue the intellectual conversations that have started in the classroom. But like many of my peers, my career goals are in a field that does not necessarily require or financially enable extensive graduate study. As a second-semester senior, I find myself looking for ways to continue formal learning post-graduation. Initiatives like M.I.T.x could be my answer.
Unlike other online learning programs currently available, M.I.T.x will grant certificates to students who master a particular subject. The certificate will not replace or equal a traditional MIT degree. Rather, this credential will rank somewhere between a college diploma and learning for learning’s sake.
So, in addition to developing a technological platform, our mathematically inclined cousin has added much needed nuance to the way we measure academic success in the United States. College graduation no longer has to mean the end of learning from passionate experts or the end of a means to track what you have learned.
Beyond knowledge junkies like me, free online classes that result in something like a degree are a step toward affordable education for all. Last semester Peter Conn, a professor in the English department, challenged Penn to look at its record on economic diversity. In a Penn Almanac article resulted in a public conversation with Dean of Admissions Eric Furda and Director of Student Financial Aid Bill Schilling, Conn made it clear that universities like Penn are not doing enough to make a top-rate education financially accessible. He wrote, “the most prestigious colleges and universities have for generations simply served to reinforce the social and economic status quo.” If you look around, this truth is clear at Penn.
I would not trade four years of familiar faces on Locust Walk for a computer screen. Programs like M.I.T.x, however, have the potential to provide tremendous opportunities for those whom a traditional education proves impractical and for those who want to bring a piece of the classroom into their careers.
Samantha Sharf, a former Managing Editor for The Daily Pennsylvanian, is a College senior from Old Brookville, N.Y. Her email address is email@example.com. Elements of Style appears every Wednesday.