Prestigious US university the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has introduced a completely digitalised online course that could change the face of higher education. The course is the first of its kind because it is utterly free of charge, 100% online and can be studied by students anywhere, regardless of their academic background or qualifications. The Institute claims its aim in introducing the course, the first of many for its online project MITx, is to “shatter barriers to education,” and it seems likely to succeed in doing exactly that.

MIT is already a leader in online learning and education technology, with lectures, course notes and videos available free of charge online. But this pilot course, called 6.002x Circuits and Electronics, is the first of its kind to be delivered exclusively through online content. The course will mimic the corresponding undergraduate course taught at the Institute, but will feature interactive e-learning, online instruction, virtual laboratories and online contact between students and professors. Students will benefit from the world-class instruction of real MIT lecturers and professors, with the course to be lead by the director of the university’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

The course will involve weekly video lectures, virtual laboratory sessions designed to exactly replicate the real-life experience of MIT students in the science lab, weekly practice exercises and homework. An e-textbook will be provided to each student free of charge and an online discussion forum will enable pupils to put questions to their professors. A prototype forum will even allow collaboration between learners during the course, a particularly exciting step forward in the field of education technology and distance learning, which has until now been necessarily a largely solitary pursuit. This will enable students for the first time to experience the highly beneficial and enriching experience of peer cooperation and academic debate within an online learning environment. And perhaps most excitingly of all, successful students whose work is graded at a high enough standard will receive a certificate at the end of the course ratified by MIT itself to indicate their achievement.

As no special software is needed to access the course material, this truly means that for the first time ever, any motivated and intelligent student anywhere in the world will have the opportunity to learn from some of the very best professors in their field absolutely free of charge and to earn a qualification from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology without ever having to travel for meetings, interviews or examination sessions. The implications for distance learning and education technology are immense, with the only remaining barrier being the ability to access the internet frequently, which remains a difficulty for aspiring students in some areas. Nonetheless, this is surely an extremely exciting step in the right direction.