MIT Professors Propose a New Kind of University for Post-COVID Era

Jeanne A. Curley

College in the U.S. mainly comes in a few fixed shapes and sizes: the research university, the liberal arts college, the community college, the technical college. And except for relatively new options by for-profit upstarts, the options haven’t changed much in decades, despite the rise of the internet and a knowledge economy.

Oh, and there’s the COVID pandemic, which jolted all professors into using more online tools, and has brought further changes to the job market.

So what if there was a new model of university designed from scratch for 2022?

And there’s the tougher question: “If remote education is worth the tuition, then what is the worth of college?”

Five professors at Massachusetts Institute of Technology say they have some answers.

They released a white paper yesterday called “Ideas For Designing An Affordable New Educational Institution,” where they lay out a framework for essentially a new class of university that would take advantage of various trends that have emerged in the past few years.

There is nothing brand-new in the proposal. One key idea is to give students certificates in various areas as they complete sets of courses, and then award a degree once enough certificates have been earned to meet requirements for a bachelor’s, an idea known as stackable credentials.

What is unique, perhaps, is a model that both embraces online education materials and partnering with employers while also insisting on preserving in-person teaching and a dose of the liberal arts. The other main premise is that substantial change will only come if the incentives for professors change.

“If you don’t come up with a different structure with different incentives, things won’t change,” Sanjay Sarma, an MIT professor who led the creation of the white paper, told EdSurge in an interview. “If [higher education] is not fixed, someone else will fix it, and someone else will take the lead,” he adds, noting that that “someone else” would likely be entities outside of higher education.

The paper’s authors say they hope their work can become a starting point for discussion, rather than a rigid template. But the paper does lay out a set of concrete recommendations for what this new type of university, which is simply called an NEI, or New Educational Institution, should include to fill what the authors see as gaps in the current system.

The paper was published by the Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab at MIT. Funding for the time the professors put into the research and writing of the paper over the past year or so was provided by Bruce Rauner, a businessman and philanthropist and a former Republican governor of Illinois.

One unusual aspect of the NEI model is to encourage professors to adopt online course materials developed at other universities. In other words, a professor at this new type of university might assign some lecture videos by an MIT professor as homework, but then the local professor would lead discussions of the material and add his or her own perspective in in-person class sessions. In part, this adopts a model some MIT professors already use, called a Small Private Online Course, or SPOC—a customized adaption of the Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, that sparked wide attention a decade ago.

Diana Henderson, one of the white paper’s authors and a literature professor at MIT, says that the ideal would be for professors at this new type of university to be encouraged to spend part of their research time adapting and adding to rich lecture videos and other materials that other professors have already published to the internet—a riff on the concept of customizable open educational resources.

Henderson says she has seen such an approach work well from her own experience. During the pandemic, she put out materials she made for a course she taught at MIT about the Shakespeare play “The Merchant of Venice.” Soon after, a professor from the University of Colorado at Boulder started assigning some of those materials for a “Shakespeare in Film” class.

“It’s broadening how we think about research,” Henderson said in an interview.

And Henderson stressed that the goal is not to standardize around one set of course materials, even if those materials were developed at a well-known university. “It’s not this kind of colonizing other schools with our cool and groovy toys [from MIT],” she stressed. “We’re showing some ways we could collaborate, become partners, and share lessons learned without saying we have all the answers.”

Some other key points from the white paper include recommendations to:

Tilt the emphasis from research to teaching: Today, research universities reward research and offer little incentive for professors to spend time upping their teaching game. The proposed NEI would switch that, recommending that 80 percent of a professor’s time be spent on teaching and 20 percent on research. Research would still be a key piece, though, as opposed to most community colleges that focus only on teaching.

Make the physical campus lean and for learning: Colleges and universities have been in an arms race of campus construction to compete for students. The proposed NEI would skip any climbing wall and focus on what Sarma calls a “very lean physical plant focused on pedagogy, students and outcomes.” In some cases, that might mean partnering with libraries and other facilities to teach classes.

Turn the bachelor’s degree into a series of microcredentials: Millions of students complete some college but never finish a degree. The NEI proposed making sure even students who get through only part of the material come out with something to show what they did learn. As the paper notes: “In effect, this turns the degree transcripts into an amalgamation of minors and majors. … A student who does not complete a degree may still have several micro-credentials under their belt.”

Encourage team teaching of courses and concentrations: To infuse liberal arts into the curriculum, the NEI proposal suggests creating teams of faculty members from different disciplines. “For example,” the paper argues, “a machine learning micro-credential might involve courses in mathematics, computer science, sociology, and ethics. Faculty from these fields would work together to manage and teach the curriculum.”

Provide internships with employers for credit: The NEI calls for an embrace of the “co-op” model where colleges and employers work together to create internships that also fit into the curriculum. Some colleges already do this, but the practice takes considerable effort to coordinate, and it has not caught on widely at traditional universities.

It’s unclear whether anyone is ready to step in and build an NEI. But the professors who wrote the white paper plan to host a forum in November to further discuss the idea and build interest for it.

Sean Gallagher, founder and executive director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy, said in an email interview that he sees the paper as an endorsement of alternative higher ed ideas that have been growing in recent years.

“It’s exciting to see the recognition that experiential learning (co-op) and online learning can be at the core of adding value to the undergraduate experience,” Gallagher said. “There’s very significant demand for both of these models, but they’re under-leveraged.”

Some of the professors who wrote the paper have worked to help design new universities in the past. Sarma, for instance, led the advising work that MIT did to help create the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

And they’re not the first MIT professors to dream up new types of universities. In 2016, then-MIT dean Christine Ortiz left the university to start a new type of university without lectures or classrooms. That idea has grown into a fledgling nonprofit university called Station1, which its website says has “educated over 90 undergraduate fellows” and partnered with 90 organizations.

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