edX president on how MOOCs will change higher education


On Friday, edX president Anant Agarwal shared his thoughts on MOOCs (massive open online courses) and the future of higher education at a panel called "Re-imagining STEM Higher Education in the Worldwide Classroom." The panel took place at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Forum on Science & Technology Policy in Washington, D.C.

At the forum, Agarwal dropped the news that edX, the Harvard and MIT-funded MOOC provider, would announce "a significant number" of university partnerships in the "next few weeks." This news has big implications for both online learning and higher education. Many university educators fear MOOCs will replace them, and the new partnerships will only serve to heighten that anxiety. 

But Agarwal believes MOOC can help, not hurt, educators and education. Here's what he had to say:

Agarwal kicks the panel off by explaining that the world has been changing at an unprecedented rate--but classrooms haven't. Technology that was new ten years ago is already outdated today but, for some reason, the learning experience is the same as it was 50 years ago. Students still congregate in a lecture hall to listen to a professor deliver knowledge to them. Agarwal believes MOOCs can change that. 

edX is based on an open-source platform and Agarwal says most people think this sounds great, but don't quite know what it means. Agarwal explains: "Think of MOOCs like edX as a taxi that gives passengers free rides. What open-source platform means, what edX is doing is that it is going to give away the taxi, as well." Basically, what that boils down to is that anyone anywhere in the world can take edX's platform and build off of it. In an age where everything is copyrighted, that's pretty unprecedented. Agarwal explains the thinking behind the open-sourcing, saying edX hopes to crowdsource to get the best possible online learning platform.

Agarwal show the audience a series of statistic from the first edX MOOC, which he co-taught (figures are rounded):

  • 155,000 enrolled in first course
  • 26,300 tried the first problem set
  • 10,500 made it to the midterm
  • 9,300 passed the midterm
  • 8,200 took the final
  • 7,200 received certification

Agarwal notes he taught more students in a single MOOC than he could teach in 40 years at the MIT campus. Although very few of the 155,000 who started the course actually received certification, that doesn't prove MOOCs don't work--only that we need to figure out how to implement them best. Agarwal tells the audience about an example on the other side of the spectrum--a MOOC was used in an infamously difficult course at the College of Engineering at San Jose State University and, using the blended learning approach, the 41% failure rate of the course dropped to just 9%. 

Agarwal ultimately sees "learning sequences," a series of videos integrated with interactive exercises, replacing the age-old lecture. Learning sequences promote active learning, and when you engage students, they learn much better. Agarwal views MOOCs as a next-generation textbook--university students get content through a MOOC-style course, and then come to class where the professor helps them process the material and apply what they learned. Agarwal calls this "the socratization of education."

edX is already figuring it out. Agarwal says students love edX's autograded exercises because they crave instant feedback on their work. edX's analytics tracked students' studying behavior and found that students most likely to use the textbook to study for exams and more likely to use the lecture videos and discussions forums to do their homework. But bigger questions remain: How do you teach creativity? How do you grade free-form essays? How do you recreate the small group feel?

Agarwal doesn't believe MOOCs will turn professors into glorified teaching assistants. Agarwal believes MOOCs can be an experimental vehicle to discover best practices breakthrough approaches to education--using data analytics, educators and researchers can track what works and what doesn't. Agarwal envisions "edX as the particle accelerator of learning."


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  • Photo credit:
  • Davide Savenije