In December 2011, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced that it was opening up some of its online courses to anyone in the world who wished to take them, an initiative called MITx. By May of 2012, MIT announced a partnership with Harvard University to offer free online courses jointly. Called edX, these initiatives are part of a larger movement called MOOCs, or "massive open online courses."
Ten years ago, MIT was one of the pioneers of the Open Courseware Movement (OCW), which made available course materials from every one of the courses taught at MIT (today, materials from 2100 courses are free to anyone), and MITx and edX were the next logical step in this endeavor.
While those accessing MITx courses or materials through OCW cannot secure degrees or other credentials from MIT, these are nevertheless highly sought after by students seeking access to high quality technical courses such as "Introduction to Solid State Chemistry," "Introduction to Computer Science and Programming," "Quantitative Methods in Clinical & Public Health Research," and "Artificial Intelligence."
MOOCs and open courseware programs are designed in part to open up access to higher education.
It should come as no surprise that MIT would be a leader in making the content of its courses freely available, as MIT was one of the nation's first land-grant colleges.
The Great Democratic Experiment
At its heart, the Act was based on two principles that have continued to influence the way in which we think about higher education in the United States: that it should be widely accessible (with states underwriting higher education so that it is affordable for many) and practical.
Morrill intended for these state-supported schools to educate agriculturalists and mechanics, because he understood that a rapidly industrializing nation would need people with practical skills. Although the U.S. economy has since industrialized and globalized, in many ways higher education in America is still defined by the goals of access and practicality.
The idea of greater access to college education was not unique to Morrill. Indeed, so-called "worker's colleges" such as The Agricultural College of Michigan and the People's College of New York long predated the Morrill Act.
Other legislators had proposed bills similar to Morrill's, but he was the most persistent advocate for expansion of higher education. In 1856, Morrill proposed his first resolution, which called on the Committee on Agriculture to create of a Board of Agriculture including "one or more national agricultural schools upon the basis of the naval and military academies."
Morrill argued that the federal government expanded commerce by investing in lighthouses and harbors, and that agriculture and agricultural education should similarly benefit from federal largess especially given what Morrill saw as the deteriorating condition of agriculture in the United States.
"Our country is growing debilitated, and we propagate the consumptive disease with all the energy of private enterprise and public patronage," he said. "Does not our general system of agriculture foreshadow ultimate decay? If so, is it beyond our constitutional power and duty to provide an incidental remedy?"
Improving the skills and knowledge of farmers was the best method to reverse this decline, in Morrill's estimation, and the federal government could play a critical role. To fund these public colleges, Morrill proposed land grants, which had been used successfully to fund the railroads.