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

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

Oh, and there’s the COVID pandemic, which has pushed all professors to use more online tools and brought more changes to the job market.

So what if there were a completely redesigned university model for 2022?

And there’s the harder question, “If distance learning is worth the tuition, then what is college worth?”

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

They published a white paper yesterday entitled “Ideas For Designing An Affordable New Educational Institution” in which they set out a framework for what is essentially a new class of universities that would capitalize on various trends that have emerged in recent years .

The proposal contains nothing new. A key idea is to give students certificates in various fields as they complete courses, and then award a degree once enough certificates have been earned to meet the requirements for a bachelor’s degree, an idea known as stackable credentials.

What is perhaps unique is a model that incorporates both online educational materials and partnerships with employers, while insisting on maintaining in-person instruction and a liberal arts dose. The other main premise is that substantive change will only happen if the incentives for professors change.

“Unless you find another structure with different incentives, things aren’t going to change,” Sanjay Sarma, an MIT professor who led the preparation of the white paper, said in an interview with EdSurge. “If [higher education] If it’s not fixed, someone else will fix it, and someone else will take the lead,” he adds, noting that “someone else” would likely be institutions outside of higher education.

The paper’s authors hope their work can become a starting point for discussion rather than a rigid template. However, the paper makes a number of specific recommendations for what this new type of university, referred to simply as the NEI or New Educational Institution, should include in order to fill the gaps the authors see in the current system.

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

An 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 breed of university could assign some of an MIT professor’s lecture videos for homework, but then the local professor would lead discussions of the material and add his or her own perspective in face-to-face classroom sessions. In part, this adopts a model some MIT professors are already using, called the Small Private Online Course, or SPOC — a bespoke adaptation of the Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, that garnered widespread attention a decade ago.

Diana Henderson, one of the authors of the white paper and a professor of literature at MIT, says that it would be ideal if professors at this new breed of university were encouraged to spend some of their research time adapting and supplementing extensive lecture videos and other materials with the other professors have already published on the web – a nod to the concept of adaptable open educational resources.

Henderson says she’s seen from personal experience that such an approach works well. During the pandemic, she was distributing materials she created for a course she was teaching at MIT on Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. Soon after, a professor from the University of Colorado at Boulder began assigning some of these materials for a Shakespeare in Film class.

“It broadens the way we think about research,” Henderson said in an interview.

And Henderson emphasized that the goal is not to standardize a set of course materials, even if those materials were developed at a well-known university. “It’s not about colonizing other schools with our cool and funky toys [from MIT]’ she emphasized. “We’re highlighting a few ways we can work together, become partners, and share lessons learned, without saying we have all the answers.”

Some other key points from the whitepaper include recommendations on:

Shifting the focus from research to teaching: Today, research universities reward research and offer little incentive for professors to spend time improving their curriculum. The proposed NEI would change that, recommending that 80 percent of a professor’s time should be devoted to teaching and 20 percent to research. However, research would still be a key element, unlike most community colleges which only focus on teaching.

Make the physical campus lean and learning: Colleges and universities have been in a campus building arms race to compete for students. The proposed NEI would skip any climbing wall and focus on what Sarma calls a “very lean physical facility with a focus on pedagogy, students and outcomes.” In some cases, this can mean working with libraries and other entities to teach courses.

Turn the bachelor’s degree into a set of microcredentials: Millions of students graduate from some college but never graduate. The NEI suggested ensuring that even students who have only completed part of the material come up with something to show what they have learned. As the paper notes, “This makes graduate degrees an amalgamation of minors and majors. … A student who does not complete a degree can still have several micro-credentials under his belt.”

Encourage team teaching of courses and focuses: To incorporate the 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 include courses in mathematics, computer science, sociology, and ethics. Faculty from these fields would work together to administer and teach the curriculum.”

Credit internships with employers: The NEI calls for the adoption of the ‘co-op’ model, where universities and employers work together to create placements that also fit into the curriculum. Some colleges are already doing this, but the practice requires a significant amount of coordination and has not spread widely in traditional universities.

It’s unclear if anyone is willing to step in and build an NEI. But the professors who wrote the whitepaper plan to host a forum in November to further discuss the idea and generate interest.

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 education ideas that have proliferated in recent years.

“It’s exciting to see the realization that experiential learning (co-op) and online learning can be at the core of adding value to the undergraduate experience,” said Gallagher. “There is a very high demand for both of these models, but they are underfunded.”

Some of the professors who wrote the paper have worked to design new universities in the past. For example, Sarma led the advisory work that MIT did in founding the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

And they’re not the first MIT professors to come up with new types of universities. In 2016, then-MIT Dean Christine Ortiz left the university to create a new kind of university without lectures and classrooms. That idea has grown into a fledgling non-profit university called Station1, which according to its website has “trained over 90 undergraduate students” and worked with 90 organizations.