What good is a 'Certificate of Mastery?'

Harvard University students walk through the campus. Venerable educational institutions like Harvard and MIT are giving away education online for free.

John Moe: Going to Harvard or MIT can be tough, what with the cost and it being really hard to get in and the moving to Massachusetts and all. How about taking classes from either Harvard or MIT at home on the Internet and it's free and everyone gets in?

That's the idea of Ed X, a new partnership launched by the schools yesterday. Classes start in the fall. Online.

Anant Agarwal is president of Ed X.

Anant Agarwal: Students do five to 10 minute videos, interlaced with online exercises that give instant feedback. There's no emails -- it's all browser-based and online. There's Interactive laboratories where you play with laboratory components in Lego-like fashion, you build things online. There's a discussion forum you go on and you can enter your questions and so on and either the staff or more commonly other students answer them.

Agarwal teaches at MIT, both in a classroom and in an open online course.

Agarwal: I teach the MIT course 6002, and my team and I teaching 6002X online -- it's the same hard course. The grading uses the same standards, and so if several people are able to show mastery of a subject, so be it. They deserve to be recognized with a certificate.

For Ed X, that certificate will be called a Certificate of Mastery. Which is neat but not quite a Ph.D or anything anyone's ever heard of. So what good is it?

Elaine Allen of the Babson Survey Research Group at Babson College has been studying online education for 10 years.

Elaine Allen: It will have value in technical jobs, because right now you can go out and get a certificate in Microsoft technology, so I think this will have value at that point and also in keeping your skills current. But will it get you a job? I don't think so.

Allen says this approach in higher education won't be a novelty for long.

Allen: Up until now, everything was just replicating face to face classes. And now you're seeing, and they are big name institutions, that are coming online and essentially giving away their courses. In the long run, they will have less maintenance in terms of faculty, so they can give them away, but I'm not sure what long term they will be getting back.

Moe: Certainly the keg parties aren't as fun -- sitting alone at your computer.

Elaine Allen: Yeah, but you don't have to dress.

And now, Tech Report Theater. Producer Larissa Anderson will play Google, I play the Gmail product known as Mail Goggles.

Mail Goggles: You wanted to see me, boss?

Google: Have a seat, Mail Goggles. As you know, a few of our experimental products are going permanent.

Mail Goggles: Right, I heard about instant Gmail translation into different languages. So cool, I'm happy for it.

Google: But we're going to have to let some products go.

Mail Goggles: Who?

Google: You, for one.

Mail Goggles: But I'm Mail Goggles! Someone's going out drinking; they know they might send emails to an ex-girlfriend or boyfriend later, so they switch me on!

Google: Then they're forced to solve a math problem before the message will send. You were a fun idea.

Mail Goggles: So what's the problem?

Google: People didn't use you. Anyone with the foresight to switch on Mail Goggles was too smart to send stupid messages anyway.

Mail Goggles: I hate it when great ideas get torpedoed by common sense and logic.

Google: Good luck to you.

Mail Goggles: Do you think Yahoo is hiring? Yahoo Mail Goggles!

Google: Out!

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.

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