At home: Rafael Reif

In 1913, MIT-trained architect William Welles Bosworth took on a hefty assignment: to design a series of buildings on a 50-acre patch of industrial landfill beside the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts. George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak, donated $2.5m anonymously to the scheme. And the result was the MIT campus: a collection of cutting-edge classrooms and laboratories for the teaching of science and engineering – and a presidential residence, now called Gray House.

A century later, construction has begun again, on more classrooms that may radically affect how knowledge is taught and developed. The difference is that the new spaces are virtual: we can enter them from home.

The newest Gray House resident, Rafael Reif, who has served as MIT’s 17th president since July this year, is leading the online learning revolution with an initiative called MITx. The site allows people around the globe to log on to MIT courses created for them in real time – and, unlike other free online learning companies often backed by venture capital looking for revenue streams, it is not-for-profit.

The exterior of Gray House

“This place is rich with knowledge and the world is hungry for knowledge. A lot of people don’t have access to it,” says Reif, 62, talking from a small but elegant sitting room in Gray House, with views on to the wind-bent maples along the Charles River. “We’re trying to create that access.”

Last spring, MIT joined Harvard to create edX, a non-profit platform with a broader slew of classes. “We asked Harvard to help us develop and co-run edX. What we can do together is greater than anything each of us can do alone.” Berkeley and the University of Texas will also post courses, and more universities will be announced. “Think of edX as a printing press and MITx or Harvardx or universityx as the content,” he says.

Judging from the initial reaction to the first edX courses (400,000 global home users have already signed up), some say construction of online classrooms from the world’s top universities may be as historic as the invention of the printing press. “I think it will have a huge impact,” says Reif, leading me into a formal dining room where coffee and cakes are laid out on an antique sideboard.

The bookcase contains first editions of Thackeray and Twain

The Beaux-Arts-inspired design of Gray House is simpler than many of Bosworth’s other MIT buildings that are heavy with neoclassical features. The house has a rectangular footprint and is located beside an L-shaped student dorm. “The dorms once blocked views of factories,” says Reif. Today, smog-shrouded smokestacks have given way to trendy restaurants and high-tech companies: clean industries spawned from innovations around MIT.

Reif, a professor of electrical engineering and expert in nanotechnology who has 15 patents of his own, grew up in Venezuela. “My parents escaped from eastern Europe in 1938. The only country that took them was Ecuador, and from there they moved to Venezuela.” Reif studied at state universities: “I went to a public university in Caracas. There were riots against the government [in 1969] and the university [Universidad Central de Venezuela] closed. I tutored kids and transferred to a university inland.” Reif got a scholarship to Stanford and moved to MIT as a young faculty member in 1980. He never left.

So what initially prompted MIT to open up its classrooms to the wider world? “We started the Open Course Ware more than 10 years ago to share what we teach at MIT. We put all 2,100 courses online: all the material, lectures, problem sets, even professors’ notes that we teach are in OCW,” he replies. “It’s like an open-book you find electronically.”

The sitting room, where Reif and his wife host receptions

Since 2002, the content has been used by 125m people, and now edX has taken online learning to a new level. The original aim, says Reif, was to modernise classes at MIT. “When I became provost seven years ago, I started to think about the university of the future. What will it look like? How would MIT change if we had content online in a tutorial way ... What would happen if we also made it available to everyone in the same spirit as OCW? I don’t think we should erect barriers around knowledge created at universities.”

In the large front sitting room, where Reif and his wife Christine host receptions, there are a number of objects donated by alumni on display. A bookcase includes first editions of Thackeray and Twain. A 1910 portrait of a woman swathed in black, by artist Russell Greeley, hangs on a front wall. “That’s Katharine McCormick, an MIT graduate,” says Reif, as he leads me on a tour. “She was an early suffragette.” A sculpture of a giant beaver occupies one corner. “The school mascot,” Reif laughs. “The students have a saying: he’s nature’s engineer and he does his best work at night. Maybe they identify with that.”

The Reifs, who have two grown-up children, are only gradually adding their own touches to the historic house, which has been undergoing electrical renovations. “We need to add more things to these rooms. Chris has picked out some bronzes from the MIT Collections,” he says, referring to the campus museum.

Reif goes on to explain that MITx and edX have developed technologies inspired by online gaming. “One online exam, for instance, is to build a software code. You have a ton of students. And users self-assemble in groups and teams. We’re using crowd-source techniques to get people to work together,” Reif says. “The potential is unlimited. Professors are throwing out not just problem-sets but real problems to thousands of users. Ideas are proliferating like crazy.”

Photographs and alumni gifts

I ask how they are able to grade half-a-million at-home learners. “Much of the grading is done automatically with software algorithms. Advanced crowd sourcing even lets us use alumni as graders,” says Reif, adding that classes are still experiments. “We’re using the whole world of learners as a lab to see what works and what doesn’t. What works in one discipline might not work in another.”

And can Reif address the looming question: with tuition fees soaring, will online classes eventually make the university campus obsolete? “That is a clear risk,” he replies. “For people who don’t have access to a university campus, instruction is great, but a university campus education is much more than instruction ... you learn how to interact with people, you learn morals.”

We stroll through the main hall, which doubles as a gallery, with busts and portraits of previous MIT presidents lined up in a row. “I’ve been talking to university presidents,” he says. “Some think of this as threatening, that if it takes off just when you are struggling with costs – and we have a low-cost, online alternative – the residential model will collapse. But the online cannot exist without the residential because the campus creates the knowledge. And research – curiosity-driven and applied – is the core of a university. You kill that, you kill the virtual.”

We return to the sitting-room sofa and I ask Reif to describe his most recent invention. “It will revolutionise the world,” he jokes. “No, it’s an integrated technology that lets you use more space; build, say, layers of houses on top of houses.” It takes an awkward moment to realise that Reif is not talking about real houses but nanotechnology that lets you increase microscopic space on circuits. I start to wonder whether MITx offers nanotechnology classes for dummies.

MIT presidents’ family wall

Finally, I ask Reif if he thinks online learning could turn into the next internet bubble. “I don’t think so,” he replies. “The cat is out of the bag. It’s about global numbers. This makes the world richer at your own desktop. We use the term the collective wisdom of MIT to solve a problem; now we’re talking about collective wisdom of the world,” he says. “The beauty of this is 100m-plus people at home, working together to solve global problems.”

Favourite thing

MIT presidents’ family wall:

“This is a wall I loved to look at when I first came to MIT as a young faculty member,” says Reif, leading me to a lower-ground-level area with a photograph-covered wall by the coatroom. “I was invited here to receptions and could see the presidents with their families. It humanised the MIT presidents for me. I want these photographs to be seen,” he says. “I want students to drop off their coats here so they can’t miss the wall. I’m sure these photos will have the same effect on young people as they had on me.”

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