MIT's announcement last month of a new online certification program made national news. The initiative, called MITx, will offer anyone with Internet access the opportunity to take MIT courses for free. For the past decade, MIT has offered free online classes through its OpenCourseWare platform, but MITx will go beyond that: according to the New York Times, it will enable students to use online laboratories, discuss course materials with one another, and, for a small fee, obtain a certificate of mastery.
Bootstrappers rejoiced. "For Wall Street Occupiers or other decriers of the 'social injustice' of college tuition, here's a curveball bound to scramble your worldview: a totally free college education regardless of your academic performance or background," crowed Forbes blogger James Marshall Crotty. Not only will MITx level the educational playing field, but MIT's foray into online education will radically change that market, Crotty wrote, its negligible price tag forcing down the tuition rates of for-profit universities while creating a new cottage industry of social media geared toward educational support. "MITx is nothing short of revolutionary," Crotty added. "This is especially true if you aren't a credential freak."
Before the social-justice set packs up and goes home, they should note that MITx currently has only one course launching this spring. They should also take into account the research of Justin Reich, a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. In a lunchtime talk at the Berkman Center on Tuesday titled "Will Free Benefit the Rich? How Free and Open Education Might Widen Digital Divides," Reich made the case that, in the "profoundly inequitable" United States educational system, free technological resources favor those students who are already at a socioeconomic advantage.
"Education technology innovation does not harm students," said Reich. "[But] inequalities are only interesting with things that have value."
For his soon-to-be-published dissertation, Reich studied nearly 180,000 classroom wikis worldwide, data that stretches across all geographic regions and income brackets. He found that wikis created in low-income classrooms tended to offer fewer learning opportunities than their high-income counterparts, and that they also tended to be shorter-lived.
Reich said that his results fell in line with 25 years of research showing that technological advancements — even those that are free — more often benefit the privileged.
This will likely be true for MITx. "There's clear evidence that those who consume open courseware are predominantly affluent people," Reich told me after his lecture. That's not a bad thing— if education technology doesn't benefit the middle class, he says, it won't gain traction.
"When great universities put their course materials online, it expands the opportunities for students to get access to that kind of education — I think there are very few readily apparent drawbacks," he said. "Here's an educational opportunity that's a gateway of opportunity to a very small number of undergraduates for a long time. That instruction [is] no longer going to be protected as an elite experience— we're going to find ways to make that experience broadly accessible. I think that's great. But it's worth checking who's taking advantage of this kind of opportunity."