CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) — The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has offered free online courses for the last four years with one major downside: They didn't count toward a degree. That's about to change.
In a pilot project announced Wednesday, students will be able to take a semester of free online courses in one of MIT's graduate programs and then, if they pay a "modest fee," earn a "MicroMaster's" degree, the school said.
The new degree represents half of the university's one-year master's degree program in supply chain management. As part of the pilot project, students who perform well in the online half can apply to finish the second semester on campus, though they would have to pay tuition for that part. At the end, students who start the program online would pay less than those who take the full year on campus.
The fee for the MicroMaster's degree amounts to what it now costs to receive a "verified certificate" for finishing online classes, the university said. Costs vary, but it's often $50 per course.
"The rising cost of education, combined with the transformative potential of online teaching and learning technologies, presents a long-term challenge that no university can afford to ignore," MIT President L. Rafael Reif said in a statement. "At MIT, we are choosing to meet this challenge directly by assessing the educational model that has served the Institute so well for so long."
MIT didn't immediately say when the new pilot project would launch.
Amid the growth of free online courses, some academics predicted that it would spell the end of traditional college courses, and perhaps undermine the need for university degrees. But MIT follows other schools trying to merge those online classes with a university-stamped degree.
This year, Arizona State University started offering freshman courses online for free, with the option to pay for course credit later at a cost of up to $200 per credit hour. The Georgia Institute of Technology offers an online master's degree in computer science for $6,600, but the classes can be taken for free without credit. The University of Illinois has an online master's degree in business using a similar model.
MIT and Harvard were seen as pioneers in 2011 when they created the provider for free online courses, edX. The idea was to spread education far, snipping the tie between knowledge and academic credit. Although the pilot program will reintroduce course credit, MIT says it's the next step along the same path.
"The new MicroMaster's is an important modular credential for the digital age, and promises to serve as academic currency in a continuous, lifelong learning world," Anant Agarwal, an MIT professor and CEO of edX, said in a statement. "It also affords an evolutionary path for universities in the face of mounting prices, and a way to leverage technology to blend online and on-campus learning pathways."
For students, it marks a new route into the university. Students who fare well during the online semester will boost their chances of being accepted into the full master's program, the school said.
"Inverted admission has the potential to disrupt traditional modes of access to higher education," Sanjay Sarma, MIT's dean of digital learning, said in a statement. "We're democratizing access to a master's program for learners worldwide."