Presidential Charge to the Task Force on the Future of MIT Education

February 06, 2013

Charge to the Institute-Wide Task Force on the Future of MIT Education

Higher education is striving to respond to the forces of disruptive change. While many US students struggle to cover the cost of higher education, colleges and universities are straining to cover the cost of providing that education. Yet at the same moment, advances in online teaching technologies are opening up extraordinary new possibilities, suddenly making it possible to offer highly effective but comparatively low-cost advanced instruction to students on campus and to millions of learners around the world.

The positive implications for society are immense and impossible to fully foresee. And I am convinced that these forces offer us the historic opportunity to reinvent the residential campus model and perhaps redefine education altogether. Our society can only benefit if we improve what the residential research university does better than any other institution: Incubate brilliant young talent, and create the new knowledge and innovation that enrich our society and drive economic growth.

For MIT — an institution passionately committed to the kind of hands-on, team-focused, apprenticeship education that depends on community and human contact — the challenge and the opportunity are particularly urgent and direct. In short, to stay true to our educational values, we must seize the opportunity to reimagine what we do and how we do it. I raised this challenge at my inauguration. In the four months since, the stunning pace of change has proved that we are in the midst of an educational revolution.

MIT has already chosen to help lead one aspect of this revolution through edX and MITx, our ongoing experiments in online learning. But I believe we can and should take the lead in helping to invent the future of education more broadly — both on our campus and beyond. Defining this path and leading us toward a financially sustainable solution will be the charge of this Task Force.

Building on a legacy of educational innovation

MIT has helped lead the world to new educational frontiers before. In its very founding, with its bold insistence on learning by doing, MIT helped invent the educational model that turned the United States into an industrial success. In the 1950s, MIT rebuilt its engineering curriculum on a foundation of basic science. In the 1970s, MIT dared to make frontline research a routine part of the undergraduate learning experience through its now widely copied Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). In the 1980s, with Project Athena MIT created a crucial prototype of the connected campus. In 2002, MIT launched the unprecedented experiment in free online sharing known as MIT OpenCourseWare. And in late 2011, we took the next step in online learning with the creation of MITx, followed shortly by edX, a partnership with Harvard University to launch a non-profit learning platform open to students and institutions around the world.

Today, I ask that this Task Force be bold — just as bold — in experimenting with ideas that would both enhance the education of our own students on our own campus and that would allow us to offer some version of our educational experience to learners around the world. Your explorations may lead you to answers that will have implications and applications far beyond MIT, and I encourage you to capture and consider those ideas as well.

This challenge is non-trivial, but you will be able to draw on a growing resource never available before: the rapidly evolving research on learning science, including the remarkable flow of data emerging from our own online learning efforts. Use this information to inspire your thinking. The future of education may include many possible models and scenarios. Experiments will be necessary, and as we learn more along this journey, we will need flexible thinking, reliable feedback and an “ecosystem” that helps us adapt. Help us imagine how to make that ecosystem work.


Sanjay Sarma, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Director of Digital Learning, and Israel Ruiz, EVP and Treasurer, will lead the Task Force as Co-Chairs.

Leveraging the wisdom of our community

In the best tradition of MIT, it is vital that we use this Task Force to expand discussion of these complex, critical issues to include all members of our community. I therefore ask that the Task Force move immediately to create a mechanism, such as an Idea Bank, that will allow people throughout the MIT community to contribute their experiences and recommendations. And although I propose below some preliminary questions to focus your discussions, I encourage you to solicit ideas and concerns from the MIT community, leverage existing research on education and identify additional areas of importance.

A commitment to transparency and communication

Because the Task Force will consider topics that go to the marrow of MIT, we owe the community a commitment to transparency and to regular communications about the progress of its work. I encourage you to suggest the most effective tools and approaches we can use to meet these commitments.

So that you may advise me and MIT’s administration, I charge the Task Force to:

  • Propose an “ecosystem” for ongoing research, learning and innovation about the future of education.
  • Recommend a range of possible experiments and pilot projects that will allow us to explore the future of MIT education:
    • On our own campus, in ways that incorporate online learning tools to the fullest extent while maximizing the value of face-to-face learning for both faculty and students.
    • Beyond our campus, through which learners around the world could benefit from important aspects of MIT’s educational content, vision and values
  • Evaluate the future strength and sustainability of MIT’s current financial model in this evolving context and propose alternative or complementary approaches.
  • Develop a roadmap that will describe the work streams and the phases of work necessary to enable this ecosystem and implement these experiments.


Proposed questions to be addressed:

  1. What can we learn from the many examples of “blended models” of education, which seek to magnify the effectiveness of online instructional tools with in-person teaching?
  2. MIT has traditionally used a four-year, two-semester system. More modular models are also being tested. What other approaches could emerge by 2020?
  3. Online technologies have already proven very effective at instruction — the conveying of content. But as our graduates can attest, an MIT education clearly includes many learning experiences that can only occur in person. Today, the MIT learning experience involves several modes of interaction: lectures, recitations, labs, projects, internships, study groups, individual study and so on. It also features signature educational approaches such as UROP and MISTI (MIT International Science and Technology Internship program), and intensive project-based hands-on learning in many fields. What learning experiences will constitute an MIT education in 2020? Which elements would be enhanced by online technologies, and which truly demand interaction in person? What new experiences could courses incorporate?
  4. How can MIT improve accessibility and affordability?
  5. What are the implications for MIT’s financial model and pricing structures?
  6. What are the implications for MIT’s physical spaces, including classrooms, research laboratories, residential spaces and common spaces?
  7. What are the pathways and barriers, advantages and disadvantages, to extending important aspects of the MIT educational experience to vastly more learners than we could ever bring to our campus?



  • Working Group on MIT Education and Facilities for the Future
  • Working Group on the Future Global Implications of edX and the Opportunities It Creates
  • Working Group on a New Financial Model for Education



I ask that you complete a preliminary report in approximately six months, for the start of the 2013-14 academic year. This initial report should include your initial findings on all the elements of the charge. I expect that your final report could be complete a year from now.

The task before you is serious and pressing. I hope it will also be fascinating, and I urge you to bring to it all of your creativity and your highest aspirations for MIT. MIT has long stood for openness, accessibility and educational innovation, and through your efforts, we can lead the way to a new realization of these ideals.

I am deeply grateful for your willingness to serve the Institute through this Task Force, and I believe your work will also serve the world.


L. Rafael Reif