In his annual Report of the President for the academic year 2000-01, President Charles M. Vest reflects on the idea that residential universities are dinosaurs in the digital age. In an essay that discusses a wide range of educational innovations at the Institute, he argues that in fact MIT and other universities are already challenging the status quo in ways that will ensure their continued contributions to intellectual discovery and human well-being.
The theme of the report is "Disturbing the Educational Universe/Universities in the Digital Age--Dinosaurs or Prometheans?"
"The issue is simply stated," Vest wrote. "Does the future of education, learning and training belong to a new machine-based digital environment, or will the best learning remain a deeply human endeavor conducted person-to-person in a residential campus setting? I believe the answer is yes--to both.
"We are at the proverbial fork in the road where we should, and will, take both paths.
"There is not an ounce of doubt in my mind that the way we learn throughout our lives is and will continue to be profoundly influenced by the use of digital media, the Internet, the World Wide Web, and devices and systems yet to be developed.
"We will inhabit continually evolving electronic learning communities in which amazing new technologies will help us learn. Cognitive science, virtual environments and new modes of interacting will all come into play in powerful ways. We will extend educational opportunities to people throughout the world in a more cost-effective manner. On-the-job, just-in-time learning will become the norm in many industries. And there will be new players in both the for-profit and nonprofit educational domains.
"But there is even less doubt in my mind that the residential university will remain an essential element of our society, providing the most intense, advanced and effective education. Machines cannot replace the magic that occurs when bright, creative young people live and learn together in the company of highly dedicated faculty.
"The residential research-intensive university will not only survive, it will prosper. If anything, its importance will grow as we continue to provide access to the brightest young men and women regardless of their social and economic backgrounds."
Urging higher education to emphasize above all "the enhancement of learning," Vest stressed the importance of careful evaluation of new educational methods and the dangers of assuming that the most technologically sophisticated solution is always the right one.
At the same time, he commented on the critical importance of guiding principles. "At MIT," he wrote, "we have decided that one of our dominant visions is that of openness." Vest cited as a shining example of this vision the OpenCourseWare program, which will make the primary materials for nearly all of MIT's 2,000 courses available on the Internet free of charge. "MIT's opportunity to serve society in this new way is immense and we are organizing the systems and the services to the faculty that will be required to meet these high expectations," he wrote.
VISION OF OPENNESS
In reviewing issues that will shape the integration of technology into higher education, Vest highlights the contributions MIT is making. On campus, these include innovations such as WebLab and the Physics Interactive Video Tutor (PIVoT).
Technology also allows teaching at a distance, while bringing the world to Cambridge in new ways. The Institute's largest experiment in distance education is the Singapore-MIT Alliance (SMA). This is the most technologically advanced point-to-point synchronous educational program in the world, supported by a 155 Mbps Internet 2 line (see article on page 8).
Vest noted that the Alex and Brit d'Arbeloff Fund for Excellence in MIT Education supports 15 projects, most associated with improvements of the freshman experience, ranging from TEAL/Physics (see story on page 1) to a freshman project in solving complex problems, Vest noted.
Last year, a freshman project called Mars 2000 explored the design of a mission to determine whether life exists on Mars. It drew on many experts from outside MIT who acted as mentors and resources to the student teams. "The results--in terms of intensity, engagement, and learning--appear to have been spectacular," Vest wrote.
Similarly, Project iCampus, the Institute's partnership with Microsoft, funds 13 projects that utilize computer technology to enhance learning or to manage educational systems effectively. These projects run the gamut from online teaching modules in electrical engineering, computer science and fluid mechanics to collaboration at a distance in aerospace design courses.
In his conclusion, Vest returned to the question posed at the beginning of the essay.
"It is our minds, our sharing spirits, our insights into our students, our quest to improve what we do and our passion to explore new horizons that drive the quality of teaching and learning in a research university," he wrote. "But we can do better in the future than in the past. That is the simple definition of progress, and this progress will be driven in part by new technological possibilities."
Referring to the Greek mythological character who stole fire from the gods and became the great benefactor of humanity, Vest urged the university community to remember that "we are not dinosaurs. We are Prometheans."
He pointed out that MIT cannot expect to have these exciting new fields to itself. "Our progress will be driven by competition as well," he wrote. "Others, driven by emerging technological and market forces, will increasingly challenge our leadership in education. I welcome this, because a healthy mix of competition and cooperation fuels excellence.
"We have new opportunities to form educational alliances across distance, time, institutions and nations--alliances that will expand opportunity, learning and understanding. This, too, I celebrate, because we and our students must be citizens of the world as well as of our own countries.
"However, the energy, passion and inventiveness of our residential students, together with an environment that combines research, scholarship and teaching, is our greatest source of renewal and our greatest strength."
Copies of the full report will be distributed on campus in the next week.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 12, 2001.