From the 1960s to the mid 1980s, computing at MIT was dominated by time-shared mainframes accessed from terminals. (Indeed, time sharing was pioneered at MIT by F. J. Corbató.) Use of computers for education was awkward because terminals were scarce, and because every subject had to assume that students knew nothing about computers.
Project Athena changed this environment. When it started, personal computers had just been introduced, and workstations were not yet common. The Athena model was networked workstations in public clusters located all over campus. Project Athena was successful in ensuring that all students knew how to use computers. It was, however, less successful in injecting computing into mainstream teaching. Computers still could not be made to convey ideas relevant to most subjects being taught.
Recently the MIT network has been extended to dormitories, thus making it possible for students to work from their rooms using Athena. This suggests that the next model for MIT is probably one of networked personal computers. Many if not all students will own computers; MIT will supply the network and the necessary infrastructure, including mail servers, print servers, Web servers, permanent data storage, and, in clusters on campus, both workstations and more powerful machines. Much of the computing will be done not in public clusters, but somewhere out on the net. Students will see the same computing environment in an office, a cluster on campus, and in a dorm room. The public clusters will still contain specialized computers, such as graphics engines, and more powerful computers for problems whose computing needs exceed the capabilities of personal computers. They will also contain specialized equipment such as large-bed plotters.
The next step after that one in student computing (this is very speculative) might occur when the MIT campus is wired for cellular data communication, and students have small, portable computers which they can take with them all day, for use as portable personal assistants. These computers would normally remain turned on, in continuous wireless connection with the MIT network, and would be as unobtrusive as, say, a notebook, and therefore welcome in all settings. They would serve as telephones, pagers, Web browsers, e-mail handlers, notepads, calendars, and computers. It remains to be seen what new applications would motivate their widespread use.
Note that each of these new models for the MIT computing environment reduces the inconveniences associated with hardware. Similar advances in software are needed, and the Web need not turn out to be the technology of choice. However, whatever might supplant it must be capable of at least equal convenience in accessing large amounts of information, in various formats, from around the world.
It can be argued that today, we have not yet reached the point where educational benefits exceed the costs associated with using the Web in MIT teaching. However, every year it will be harder and harder to make that argument. We believe that within a few years over half of the regular MIT subjects will make significant use of Web-based resources. This will be done in most cases by introducing supplementary material in relatively minor ways, rather than by radically restructuring subjects. However, some subjects will be reorganized in a major way, to allow the Web to play a dominant role. All students will be familiar with Web access techniques and its use will be considered routine.
Codifying material for teaching is a scholarly activity. When it is done, often new insights are found, or gaps in knowledge are uncovered. This will undoubtedly be true as intellectual material is recodified to be presented in a hypermedia environment. We can expect some of our great educators of today to make contributions by recodifying material from our subjects in light of the capabilities of the Web, and then doing research to close the gaps in knowledge exposed in the process, or articulating the new insights learned. The new medium offers MIT faculty another opportunity to perform scholarly service on behalf of society.
There is another role that will become more prominent with the rise in importance of the Web. Students will be confronted with more information from the Web than they can handle. They will need guidance as to what is important and what is not, what is correct and what is not, and what is the optimum order in which to learn the various concepts. Increasingly, educators will be called upon to chart paths through thickets of information, while keeping an eye fixed on the final destination. Thus they will serve, in a sense, as tour guides.
This does not imply that there is no opportunity for MIT to supply distance education. It means that we must carefully choose where to place our efforts, so that our natural strengths can be utilized. The Committee has identified three opportunities, each of them a natural extension of our major mission, which is residence education. These are
However, there are powerful forces that may interfere with this view of our role. Other sectors of society are adapting, or will be forced to adapt, to the Web and other new technologies. The conduct of scholarly research is already changing, as distance collaboration is becoming easier. It is entirely possible that the future of higher education will not resemble the brick-and-mortar, residential model of today. If distance education is successful, students at Harvard and Wellesley are not the only ones who will cross-register in MIT subjects, and conversely MIT students will be able to take courses from around the world. The best lecturer in some topic (e.g., freshman calculus) can be "delivered" anywhere on the planet by the new technologies, and it is possible that a small, elite group of super educators in the new mold will emerge as the "professors of choice," world wide. Will these people be MIT faculty? We may be in for a battle for educational market share and economic shakeouts and consolidations similar to what happens in the commercial sector (e.g., agriculture in the past century and banking in the next few years). Beneath the intellectual activity and the unique environment of universities is a business structure that supports the enterprise. We cannot ignore threats to that structure.
The risks to MIT are real, as they are for every university. It is true that the special character of MIT may make us able to postpone deliberate action longer than some other universities. However, we do not have the luxury of deciding whether to participate in the revolution. It is already upon us. A decision to "do nothing" and stick to the status quo is as much a decision as one to implement radical changes. We must face the future brought about by these new technologies with a rational understanding of both its risks and its opportunities.
At this stage of phenomenal growth in educational delivery technologies and relative ignorance of the costs and effectiveness of using these technologies in distance learning, we do not need to answer the question, "Will MIT remain primarily a residential university or become a 'virtual campus'?" The committee is divided on the answer to this question. But, in order to position us strategically for whatever the future may bring, we should put initiatives in place that allow MIT to respond in creative and beneficial ways to the new technologies. Those initiatives are listed in our recommendations.
The MIT imprimatur is known and respected world wide. It may be that MIT-created, MIT-quality educational products and services would be well received in new educational markets. These markets might extend significantly beyond those explicitly listed in this report. They might include a variety of K-12 programs, or students in developing countries, or engineers and executives currently "on the job." A carefully selected set of initiatives implemented now would put in motion a scientific, data gathering exploration of this new frontier. We should continually evaluate what we are doing and what we are learning. With the new knowledge that such a process will bring, we will be prepared to take maximum advantage of the new technologies commensurate with the unique strengths of MIT.