Professor Christine Ortiz, a respected Dean at MIT, recently announced that she is leaving her esteemed post—at least for a year—to found a new research university. Separating Ortiz’s institution from existing institutions is her plan to put project-based and virtual learning at the center of the institution on every level. If anyone is well positioned to establish a truly 21st-century university, it’s Ortiz. She is highly accomplished, has spent over 17 years at one of the nation’s top-ranked universities, and has a strong reputation as an educational leader (notably, under Ortiz’s direction, since 2010, MIT’s minority graduate student population has increased by 30%), but can Dr. Ortiz now take virtual learning to the next step? In other words, can she bring a bit of ivy to the virtual world?

An MIT Dean’s Proposal for 21st-Century Learning

Like it or not, in the early years of eLearning, a lot of mistakes were made and these errors had much to do with failing to create robust online programs that were not simply as good but even better than programs housed in brick-and-mortar institutions. As a result, to this day, when many people hear “online learning,” “virtual classroom” or “eLearning” used in reference to higher education, the first thing they think about is a dubious online degree program with low standards and little currency. In short, early on, online education became equated with low rather than high standards (at least in higher education), and it has been struggling ever since to re-brand.

Dr. Ortiz isn’t the first person to attempt to move virtual learning to the next level. Since Harvard University set up a campus on Second Life and other established institutions followed suit, there have been attempts to raise the profile and status of online learning. MOOCs, which have been embraced by MIT, Stanford, and other top-ranked universities, are a more recent attempt to elevate the status of virtual learning. Now, in 2016, Dr. Ortiz is declaring that the time has come to do more than offer a degree with little or no currency (e.g., Phoenix Online) or just a few courses under an established name (e.g., MIT OpenCourseWare). She plans to establish a prestigious research university committed to rolling out an education fit for a generation of students who have grown up online—one that will have all the rigor, prestige and lasting power of a degree from any of the nation’s top-ranked universities. In this post, we look at Dr. Ortiz’s plan and consider how its success could impact eLearning and mLearning more broadly across the education and training sectors.

Project-based Learning

Dr. Ortiz’s vision puts project-based learning at the center. The idea is that students will develop deep and integrative long-term projects and these projects, rather than many small assignments, will be at the center of their educations. Undergraduate education, as a result, will start to look a lot more like graduate education. Dr. Ortiz maintains that this will be more inspirational for students—they’ll be working on things that really matter from a very young age—and building a knowledge base to drive their projects forward.

While asking an 18-year-old student to start building their dream project may sound crazy, given that many successful startups have been initiated by undergraduate students (e.g., Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook in college and Elizabeth Holmes started Theranos between her freshmen and sophomore year), the proposal makes a great deal of sense. What Dr. Ortiz is proposing is to create an undergraduate education where more Zuckerbergs and Holmes can get an education while kickstarting their projects, but this also requires an entirely new approach to education.

Virtual Classrooms

Virtual Classrooms

As Dr. Ortiz has already said, she sees “no majors, no lectures, no classrooms” in her university of the future. In a recent interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, she said, “I’ve been at MIT for 17 years, and it’s been amazing. And I’ve always been interested in curriculum and thinking about the future of the research university, and I did a lot of archival research on it. And I found in my research that many of the structures were really taken from hundreds of years ago. I think we’re at a time where we can think about the future, and moving forward how to reshape it.” So what will Dr. Ortiz offer in lieu of medieval classrooms? MIT, she notes, already has a lot of innovative structures in place, but what if a university took all those things—MOOCs, the use of learning management systems to connect students to each other and faculty, mLearning and so on—scaled them up and put them at the center of a single institution?

Among other things, there’s no question that learning needs to become more modular for this model to work. Again, in her interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Ortiz observes: “A lecture has been defined as 50 minutes or one and a half hours of a professor speaking. But what’s happening online is that now this is being modularized, and there’s active learning embedded into the whole system. As you see with MOOCs, they’re modularized. Every five or 10 minutes, there are chunks where there is active learning and recall, and all these different mechanisms of learning embedded into the system. So our focus is how do we create the on-ground system that can take advantage of that.”

Another certainty is that the actual campus will look different than it has in the past. Dr. Ortiz envisions “huge project spaces. Large centralized laboratories. Basically just large, large open spaces, as well as big centralized laboratories where no one really has their own individual laboratory.” Alongside the open laboratory model, Dr. Ortiz also sees traditional departments being abolished: “There would be no departments; it would just be transdisciplinary.”

No walls and no disciplinary divisions may sound a bit like a 1970s’ education experience (remember the school without classrooms?). Since the school without classrooms experiment failed in the 1970s (it was too noisy for teachers to teach and students to learn), is there hope for Dr. Ortiz’s open, interdisciplinary and virtual model of higher education. She believes there is, but don’t get overly excited if you’re interested in enrolling—this dream won’t be realized for at least a few years.

Potential Implications on eLearning and mLearning

Legitimacy: There’s no question that if Dr. Ortiz and her founding team establish this institution (yet to be named), the potential to legitimize virtual learning is great. While recent efforts and buy-in by traditional leaders in higher education has helped, we have yet to see the rise of a prestigious university that puts online learning at the center of its mandate.

Innovation: Dr. Ortiz is engaged in a major fundraising campaign. The proposed university will bring together online learning experts from around the world and the convergence holds the potential to drive what eLearning and mLearning will look like moving forward.

Evaluation: This new university will provide researchers with a chance to evaluate, from the ground up, what is and is not working about project-based and virtual learning.  In short, while students engage in face-to-face education and online courses can offer a comparative snapshot of two models, Dr. Ortiz’s proposed university will provide a chance to examine what students can gain from an education that has no classrooms at all. In this sense, it holds great potential to inform best practices in eLearning and mLearning both in higher education and training.

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