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The Tricky Calculus of Setting a Price for MIT's Online Courses

Administrators have announced that students in the first class will receive their certificates of completion for free.

Late last year, MIT announced the launch of MITx, a nonprofit online platform that will allow anyone in the world to take the school’s courses for free. Although the university emphasized that MITx isn’t a substitute for a traditional MIT degree, it said that students who completed the classes and demonstrated mastery of the content would be able to receive an official certificate—for a fee.

Registration opened this week for the initiative’s first course, Circuits and Electronics, which is modeled on the traditional introductory class of the same name from MIT’s electrical engineering and computer science departments. Students who register will have access to a course schedule, e-textbook, and discussion board. They'll be expected to watch weekly lectures and demonstrations via video complete practice exercises and homework assignments, and participate in an online lab. They'll also take exams and receive grades.

The biggest outstanding question is how much MITx will charge for the certificate of completion. The university evidently is still working out the details; administrators have announced that students in the first class will receive their certificates for free.

The difficulty pricing the certificate is understandable. After all, tuition at MIT costs $41,000 a year, which could start to seem even more exorbitant if students can receive the same education for much less money online. If the cost of each MITx certificate was under $1,000, a student theoretically could take an entire undergraduate degree's worth of high quality MITx courses for less than the cost of one year of traditional classes on campus.

MIT Provost L. Rafael Reif says the university will use the circuits and electronics course to "optimize the tools we have built by soliciting and acting on feedback from learners." Perhaps administrators also plan to gauge interest in the certificates and determine how much the average MITx student is willing to pay. And because the program is breaking ground for every other higher education institution, there's plenty of pressure to get it right.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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