Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Digital Education.

MIT is teaching the education industry how to modernize its distribution model.

The traditional supply chain within education is a relatively straightforward system whereby public and private institutions provide a live forum for educators to deliver content to students.  This archaic distribution model is offered only to small batches of students, is limited by class sizes and space constraints, and offers little in terms of customization.[1]  As educational institutions struggle to increase capacity to keep up with demand, tuition costs surge, student-to-teacher ratios rise, and access to a quality learning experience becomes even more scarce in certain parts of the world.  The educational needs of individuals are changing rapidly, so is it time for the education supply chain to adapt?

In 2001, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one of the world’s preeminent technical universities, announced the development of its OpenCourseWare (OCW) platform to address the limitations of its delivery model.  The purpose of OCW is to digitalize education “in pursuit of MIT’s mission – to advance knowledge and educate students.”[2]  The site officially launched in 2002 with only a select group of courses available that users could access free of charge with no restrictions.  Each course on OCW offers viewers video lectures, a syllabus, readings, and other related course materials.  This approach to the delivery of education is quite different from the traditional classroom setting as it provides a tailored learning experience to anyone with access to the internet.

Recognizing the need for digitalization to reach a broader audience, the number of online degree-granting programs and institutions has risen dramatically in the last few years.  Online degree-granting programs are currently offered at 75% of the U.S. News and & World’s Top 100 Universities.[3]  While the average annual tuition for an online degree in the U.S. is roughly half that of an on-campus education[4], the cost and structure of these programs still precludes a sizable percentage of the population from taking part.  However, MIT’s OCW platform is completely free and offers students the opportunity to take courses at their own pace in whatever subject they choose.  Although the institution does not offer a degree after completing the OCW coursework, the value to MIT’s mission of expanding its educational reach is substantial.  Each year, fewer than 5,000 students graduate from MIT’s undergraduate and graduate schools[5], while nearly 1.3 million unique users gain access to MIT resources each month via OCW.[6]

Today, nearly all of the undergraduate and graduate courses at MIT are available on OCW.  Every month, more than two million educators, students, professionals, and self-learners log into OCW, half of which are based outside the U.S.7  In the short-term, MIT is continuing to add tools to the platform to enrich learning and adapt to the needs of its users.  Recently, OCW has added instructor insights, interactive transcripts, and industry-specific accreditations aimed at continuing education for professionals, such as its Credential in Supply Chain Management.  Longer-term, MIT continues to build partnerships with other academic institutions and organizations like Apple, Google, and YouTube to make OCW more ubiquitous and enhance the learning experience.

It’s clear that OCW broadens MIT’s reach, but the key question is whether or not the platform fully bridges the gap between the traditional delivery of education and this new means of digital distribution.  MIT strives to ready its students in the classroom for the ever-evolving technological world by providing educational resources not currently offered on OCW, such as access to faculty, students, and world-class research facilities.  As the platform matures and further develops, MIT should consider taking some of these social and experiential aspects of learning into consideration.  Additionally, for the students utilizing OCW, the skills and knowledge that they acquire are not substantiated by a grade on a transcript or a degree.  So, should MIT consider offering degrees to students who complete OCW coursework and demonstrate knowledge of the content?  In the future, will mastery of a subject via digital education be viewed in the same manner as a degree? 

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[1] Schuwer, Robert and Rob Kusters.  “Mass Customization of Education by an Institution of HE: What Can We Learn from Industry?” The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning.  Athabasca University.  April 2014.

[2] “OCW Innovations.” Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

[3] “The Rise of Online Degrees at Public and Nonprofit Universities.” Center for Online Education.

[4] Vosganian, Ed.  “The Real Price of Online College.”  Affordable Colleges Online.

[5] “MIT Facts.”  Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

[6] “Site Statistics: MIT OpenCourseWare.”  Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


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8 thoughts on “Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Digital Education.

  1. MIT’s course resources are an invaluable tool, and this article demonstrates their leadership in digitizing education; however, I do not believe MIT should grant degrees on the basis of online-only course completion for three reasons:

    1) The educational experience at MIT and similar institutions is more than hard skill development. Students learn a significant amount from from their direct engagement with peers and teachers, and from the non-academic piece of the college experience. While employers in certain fields care about certain hard skills, they can screen for those skills more easily than they can test a prospective candidate’s ability to balance the competing demands that MIT students must balance to succeed.

    2) Verifying online performance is more challenging. Though most if not all of OCW’s users are using the resources for their own learning, the incentives would shift significantly were MIT to offer online degrees. In particular, weaker students may begin finding stronger students to take evaluations for them, similar to how remote interviews in the college admissions process created a market in certain countries for professional interviewees.

    3) MIT’s leadership depends both on its reputation and on the quality of its graduates. While I agree that the scarcity in MIT degrees is at least partially artificial, OCW’s popularity shows how strong the MIT brand is, and selectivity is a component of that brand. An opportunity this suggests is for MIT to use OCW and similar concepts to expand its on-campus student base using a hybrid (e.g. making certain courses primarily online even for students who are on campus), which could create leverage in their professor base and thus open up more spots.

  2. Great article! Digitalization is definitely transforming access to education around the world, and while the issue about wether degrees should be awarded is definitely up for debate, I can’t help but focus on the economic opportunities that the democratization of education is opening up.

    There are currently several organizations across the globe that are working to remotely teach technical skills to people in disadvantaged situations in order to provide them means to a sustainable income. Take for example “Refugees Code”, a non profit whose mission is to “support refugees in getting qualified jobs, as well as enabling persons entitled to asylum status to lead a self-determined life”. Before the age of digitalization and free access to education it would have been impossible to run an organization like this. (

    Going further downstream, and moving away from the education piece, companies are also outsourcing more of their “digital microwork” and Dignify, a non-profit marketplace founded by HBS students, is connecting refugees with this work opportunities, striving to offer a source of income to people in such conditions. (

    Digitalization is transforming access to education and access to economic opportunities, and hopefully will continue to do so as we strive to live in a more egalitarian world.

  3. Great article!
    I am a huge fan of online learning, but I do not believe that online education will truly replace a in-person degree in the near term for a few reasons.

    1. The online education platform tends to focus on technical skills and knowledge. A few successes that come to mind are platforms that teach coding or pre-taped lectures on different subjects. HBX Core is an example of a platform that tries to bring in cohort discussion, but implementation is a challenge. Having gone through a degree program, I believe that while the grade matters, the soft skills which are less tangible are sometimes more valuable skills to learn.

    2. Network is important. I think the value of an on campus, in person, education is as much to do with knowledge as it is to do with getting to know people. Not often valued, this aspect of both undergraduate and graduate experience helps to build lasting trust and friendships. I am not certain it can be replicated as readily on an online platform.

    3. Immersion might generate motivation to learn. The difference between learning something at your own pace and at home is very different from being in an environment that is completely geared towards it, measures you on your ability to learn, and then provides objective feedback. From this perspective, online learning again still has a long way to go.

    I think in the future, a few key enablers of the next step of remote learning includes things like VR. However, true human interaction and how well technology can replicate it will be a key driver of traditional education disruption.

  4. Thanks for posting, FCP! I have to say, I agree with Alex and June that the digital degree like will not and should not replace the in person degree for the reasons they articulated. I also want to note an issue internal to MIT’s supply chain: the entrenched stakeholders within and (likely) outside universities will resist a move pure online education at every turn. Administrators and professors in particular have a vested interest in the brick-and-mortar education model, as it enables their livelihoods – and, unlike in traditional businesses, the majority of the labor force (in this case, the professors) cannot be fired.

    With that said, I do want to note that we are collectively biased about this because this has been our experience, and our futures depend on the value of degrees very similar to MIT’s. There may indeed be a sea change in the future – and people like ourselves may be in trouble if it does.

    With that in mind, I want to take this one step further. The implication of Alex and June’s comments about soft skill development, performance verification, and immersion serving as motive to learn is in part that traditional degrees lead to better outcomes for students. There is significant data to bear this out: Even with Alex’s and June’s comments in mind, at Harvard and MIT, only 5.5 percent of students who enroll in massive ope online courses like those available at MIT earns a completion certificate! (1) While we might expect that to rise if individuals pay, this statistic suggests that this is very far from a cure-all for the problems our education system faces. If EdTech is going to enable the type of results it aspires to, it needs to determine how to increase the yield of its processes dramatically.

    1. (1) EdX, “New report, based on four years of data from edX, represents one of the largest surveys of massive open online courses to date,”, accessed 12/1/2017

  5. The concept of digitizing elements of higher education or education more generally is a compelling one. We’ve seen the proliferation of online teaching academies like Khan Academy ( aimed at increasing the accessibility of education and concepts to anyone with access to a computer and broadband. This is part of today’s larger access trend where people turn to YouTube for instantaneous and fast tutorials on just about any subject and simultaneously are accessing content in more mobile ways than ever before (iPhone, iPad).

    I am compelled by the applicability of mobile and digital learning as a means to encourage interactive learning and increase usage of educational tools for individuals in less fortunate circumstances. One company that caught my eye is Edovo (, which provides high-security iPads with learning content for prison inmates. The iPad includes content such as GED learning material. The potential for this is far-reaching with the company looking to provide video tutorials down the road. This keeps the inmates busy, while simultaneously allowing them to develop skills and concepts during their time. The societal impact is promising with a Forbes article from last year stating, “While more than 50% of inmates return behind bars after release, educational and vocational programming can reduce recidivism by 43% in three years. [1]” This is an example of how digitization can truly transform the education supply chain and access for those in some of the worst social positions.

    [1] Ann Field, “Edovo, Maker Of Tablet-Based Education For Inmates, Aims To Reduce Recidivism And Continues To Grow” March 12, 2016, Forbes,, accessed November 30, 2017.

  6. FCP! Great article.

    I have used the MIT OCW platform several times, and I have nothing but great things to say about it. I have learned an immense amount and really do appreciate the school’s willingness to be true to the ideals of liberal educators everywhere.

    With that said, I do think that any degree or certificate that is granted through the online system should be annotated as distinct from the in-residence school, similar to the way the Harvard Extension School operates. For better or worse (and this is truly debatable), the names of the institutions serve as a screening mechanism that is communicated to anyone who is familiar with the brand. While the knowledge that you learn from a state school and an Ivy league school may be a commodity, it is the rest of the holistic package that is the target of the high end educational institutions, and much of that knowledge cannot currently be communicated online.

  7. Thank you so much for writing this piece! Education is a hugely important global topic and the growth of online education has tremendously increased access for people.

    First, I think the proliferation of online education programs has a net positive benefit. As you mentioned, it provides access to many people, some of which would not have access to traditional education systems, and it also allows people to explore new topics and subject areas at a relatively low cost, and without significant disruption to their day-to-day lives. Online education provides significant global opportunities for people to build skills without going through admissions processes that can be off-putting and oftentimes, very tenuous.

    I believe, however, that it would be difficult for these programs to offer degrees without implementing strict guidelines, testing methods and more rigorous structures. In essence, these programs would need a standardized curriculum and a way to monitor performance in order to offer degrees. Beyond that, there is a question of academic integrity that is difficult to regulate over the Internet. I think there is the potential to offer degrees, but it would not be feasible without changes. I also feel that offering degrees would defeat the purpose of online education for some people. Some people would definitely value the degree, but others believe online education is a convenient and accessible way to cherry pick what they want to learn. To offer a degree, you would need to implement standards that may drive people away.

    In the short term, I don’t believe that digital education is viewed in the same way as a degree, but it does serve as an important signal of passion, dedication and effort. As you cited, there are constraints to traditional education that prevent access, but pursuing online education demonstrates commitment to learning, which is very important.

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