The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge. (Christopher Harting/courtesy MIT)

One way to find the future of higher education is to track the brainstormers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who often seem to be a step ahead of the pack. So it matters when L. Rafael Reif, the MIT president, says that an idea for digital innovation is “on the table.”

Reif, in a recent visit with The Washington Post, said the institute is pondering whether to launch new online education programs that would generate revenue. “All this is on the table,” he said, “and we’re exploring it.”

Such programs, Reif said, could help subsidize the operation of the campus in Cambridge. “Yes, of

MIT President L. Rafael Reif. (Dominick Reuter/courtesy MIT) MIT President L. Rafael Reif. (Dominick Reuter/via MIT)

course,” he said. “That’s the beauty of it.” Reif, a fervent believer in residential education as well as online innovation, said he is continually looking to generate revenue that can “support the mother ship.”

Exactly what form these online programs would take remains to be seen. In the summer of 2014, an MIT task force recommended expansion of professional and executive education, as well as other online courses that offer certificates for a fee. Currently, there are certificates available for those who complete sequences of MIT courses online in subjects such as aerodynamics, computer science and supply chain management.

MIT has long been at the forefront of digital innovation. In 2001, the institute announced that it would begin publishing its teaching materials online for anyone to access for free. It was a ground-breaking move — giving away to the world a trove of huge intellectual and pedagogic value.

In the years since, MIT’s OpenCourseWare initiative has published syllabi, lecture notes, problem sets, videos and other curriculum materials from 2,260 courses; it has drawn 175 million visitors from around the world. These visitors include teachers, students and many others interested in self-improvement.

MIT has become a leader in propelling massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which provide unprecedented access to elite higher education. It joined forces with Harvard University to launch the nonprofit Web site called edX in 2012. The site now hosts MOOCs from prominent colleges, universities and other institutions worldwide. Those from MIT are offered under the brand “MITx.”

[MIT study finds learning gains for students who took free online course in physics.]

The task force, which Reif convened, also urged MIT to bear in mind that MOOCs can be broken into useful pieces, called modules. Not every online student wants to learn everything that a MOOC offers. But a given student might want to dive into one module to learn something for a specific purpose.

“The very notion of a ‘class’ may be outdated,” the task force said, drawing a comparison to consumers who want to listen to a song instead of an album or read an article instead of a newspaper.

This notion of the “unbundling” of classes is one of the most provocative ideas in higher education. It suggests that the curriculum of the future may be far more fluid than it is today, with courses tailored as never before to meet the needs of individual students and teachers. That has direct implications for majors and the length of time it takes students to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Reif, 64, born in Venezuela, is an electrical engineer who has served on the MIT faculty since 1980. He was provost at MIT from 2005 to 2012 and took office as president in July 2012.

“I am deeply proud that MIT and its edX partners, Harvard and [the University of California at] Berkeley, are helping to lead this revolution, higher education’s most profound technological transformation in more than 500 years,” he said in his inaugural speech.

While MOOCs are drawing enormous worldwide interest, Reif told The Post during his visit in May that he also is focused on how the free online courses are transforming residential education. He doesn’t see digital education as being in opposition to campus learning. “There are many ‘blended’ models,” he said. “There is a lot in between.”

At MIT, Reif said, most undergraduate students already have taken classes that incorporate MITx material in one way or another. By learning online things that were once taught through lectures, many students are finding that they have more time in class to work with classmates and professors on projects. Hands-on learning, he said, has been the hallmark of MIT since its founding in 1861.

When he was a student, Reif recalled, he was often impatient with lectures. His mind would wander if a professor talked for too long. “After 10 minutes,” he said, “I was gone.”

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