This weekend I attended the MIT Alumni Leadership Conference (ALC) where the topic of MOOCs came up. The brief discussion was around the question of what will MIT’s alumni composition look like in 5-20 years. It was suggested that MITx blurs the alumni lines.

The logical evolution of MOOCs is to grow from single courses to bundled courses focuses on a specific subject, and eventually degree programs. The major MOOC providers have already started down this path. We have XSeries at edX. Coursera has Specializations. Udacity has Nanodegrees. When we reach the end(?) of this journey and begin granting degrees, should those degree earners be considered alumni of the universities granting the degrees?

I’m not sure.

On the one hand, students with the intellect to complete an MIT course certainly deserve credit for the work. Where things get hazy for me is the lack of a physical connection to MIT (or any other university, for that matter). I have a friend who completed her master’s degree at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). Her first (and probably last) visit to WPI was to receive her degree at graduation. WPI considers her an alumna.

Perhaps it is my elitism showing (or euphoric feelings after a great conference), but I think students need to spend time on campus and experience campus life in order to be considered alumni. How can the university reach out to alumni asking for support (donations) if the alumni don’t have a strong connection to the university? Part of what makes MIT alumni unique are our shared experiences on campus, whether they be tooling all night/morning on problem sets or punting them altogether (not the wisest choice).

I am not convinced the crucible that is MIT can be replicated online. A few alumni joke that our brass rats are a symbol of the struggle to survive at MIT and the eventual triumph. I share that sentiment.

I guess what I’m getting at is that calling an online student an alum is akin to recognizing the triumph without the struggle. I realize that may seem mean-spirited or elitist; but, that’s where I am right now. I’m open to other viewpoints, so feel free to offer them.