The Next Step on the Path to an Online-Only Education?

MIT will soon offer a free, two-year online course sequence. (Then you pay to take a test.)
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Updated, September 20, 3pm.

If you want to get an education with massive open online courses (MOOCs), you have to approach it like an autodidact. Combine a couple MOOCs, three or four dozen Wikipedia romps, and even a few trips to the library, and you have something comprehensive.

Or that, at least, is the idea.

Today, MIT announced plans to offer something more comprehensive. The university will soon bundle MOOCs together into “course sequences” which tackle a coherent subject matter. Before taking one these “XSeries” courses, students can pay — about $100 per course — to verify their identity, in part through their webcam. Students who take an entire sequence verified can then earn a certificate of achievement (which isn’t academic credit).* 

One of the course sequences students can take might cost up to $700. As Steve Kolowich points out at the Chronicle of Higher Education, the announcement of these pay-to-verify course sequences follows news that Coursera has made $1 million in 2013 selling “verified” tests. (Coursera recently announced another $43 million in funding.)

edX’s first course sequence will teach “Foundations of Computer Science,” designed for students at the “introductory undergraduate level.” Its first course teaches the basics of Python programmings — a typical MOOC topic — and it  begins this fall. MIT won’t offer the final course in the sequence, though, until fall 2015.

The second, starting next fall, covers “Supply Chain and Logistics Management.” It’s shorter — three courses, to the seven in “Computer Science” — and it should end in summer 2015

Supply chain management, which deals with the flurry of inventory around the planet, is a topic in vogue (Apple’s success is due, in part, to its robust supply chains), and a MOOC which teaches its ways is likely to be popular. The university’s news release, too, says this sequence “has been developed at the graduate level for learners seeking to work professionally in the field.”

A MOOC, from MIT, which declares itself a vehicle of professional education, is a funny thing: It puts the Massachusetts school in the same business as the online, technical training company the University of Phoenix. These edX course sequences don’t offer academic credit, but they do offer professional education credentials — which, for employers, may be just the same.

I wonder if we’re seeing what happens when you try to cut costs in education in any medium. Cheap education can be marketing, or it can be systematic professional training. It seems now that often, in MOOCs, the twain will meet.

* The original version of this article stated that end-of-series tests would cost around $700. In fact, in the XSeries model, students pay to verify their identity, not to take a test. Students pay about $100 to verify their identity per course, so the longer of the two XSeries might cost students as much as $700.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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