MIT pioneers a new approach to increase access to quality higher education

Governments traditionally try to ensure access to school education to everyone. It gets tricky with higher education — under graduation and graduation. The costs are high and the avenues of learning are few.

The selection for few seats in scarce higher education has traditionally followed Aristotle-ian concept of justice — “equals should be treated equally and unequals unequally”. It means that if you have only one guitar, it should be given to the person who plays guitar the best because that’s the purpose of guitar. Higher Education follows similar principles. The limited seats are given to those who prove their capability over others.

This approach may be practical but it leads to several issues.

One, it's difficult to determine 'capable candidates'. There are far too many deserving candidates compared to the number of vacant seats. A line drawn anywhere has some element of randomness induced in it and excludes some deserving candidates.

Two, privilege plays a huge role in the admission process. A rank in competitive exams is a function of one's economic conditions and privilege. It leaves out those genuinely interested but can’t afford to compete in the admission process.

Three, it doesn't give avenue to those who improve later. The screening procedure is before admission. It doesn’t guarantee student’s efforts after admission. At a point in between the course, the best student outside the top colleges may be better than the average student inside the top colleges. The best students outside are thus excluded.

Four, not everyone has money to afford the courses and financial backup to forego the earnings, to pursue the course.

MOOCs, pioneered by Coursera sought to bridge these problems. It filled a huge knowledge gap, empowering students who are genuinely interested to learn. However, it struck in the last mile problem, the problem of brand! People may be impressed if you have completed MOOCs but they don’t necessarily consider them equivalent to college degrees.

MIT’s new Micromasters programme bridges the gap of brand in MOOCs. Students are to initially complete 5 online courses. They have to write a test at designated locations in each country, for each course. Passing in all the 5 courses makes them eligible to an on campus 6 month exposure at MIT. The 6 month course covers rest theoretical subjects and an internship. After the internship, the student gets a full masters from MIT.

MIT’s micromasters initiative combines the best of online learning and the advantages of an university degree. It gives flexibility to students to learn at their own pace. It screens students by providing them a genuine opportunity to display their interest by completing the online courses. The 6 month on campus programme drastically reduces the time costs. It gives an MIT degree. Academic rigour is not compromised in the process because the student writes pen-paper tests for each of the courses. It’s the best of all worlds.

It’s time for IITs, IIMs and other top colleges to implement this. IIT Kharagpur has started online courses, where IIT KGP professors teach video lessons. On designated days, students gather at a particular center in a city and professors take questions from students across the country. It’s a first step in providing access to quality higher education. They can go a step ahead and give an opportunity to some of those students to get accreditation from IITs, in form of micro degrees. It will go a long way in encouraging the best and brightest of the country to realize their full potential.

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