The particle accelerator of learning

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“The fruit ripens slowly,” the Guru Nisargadatta Maharaj once observed, “but it drops suddenly.”

In a similar fashion, MOOCs (or massive open online courses) seem to have arrived almost out of nowhere, in quick succession – first Udacity in February of last year, followed by Coursera in April, then edX in May. Remarkable as it may seem, MOOCs as we know them today have been with us only for as long as it has taken the Earth to make one orbit around the sun.

“I like to call the last year ‘the decade of online learning,’ ” joked Anant Agarwal, president of edX, during my recent visit to the offices of his bustling startup in the Kendall Square area of Cambridge, Mass.

As accelerated as the progression of MOOCs has been from curious acronym to household name, and as much as it may seem that MOOCs themselves have fallen from the sky, in truth MOOCs have been ripening for some time.

Consider the free “courses” delivered through iTunes U for the last several years, or TED Talks, and Khan Academy, not to mention some of the early progenitors of MOOCs themselves, including Dave Cormier, credited with coining the phrase in 2008, as well as George Siemens, Stephen Downes, Alec Couros, David Wiley, and others.

Recall Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative, the “open educational resources” movement, and MIT’s OpenCourseware, launched all the way back in 2002. And let’s not forget Fathom.com, an initiative out of Columbia University launched at the turn of the millennium, or even the early days of America Online and Compuserve, both of which offered educational content through their services as early as the 1990s.

MOOCs, then, are not as new as they seem – though the world today appears to be more ready for them than it was in decades past. Indeed, it isn’t hard to see how forces as diverse as Clayton Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation” from the late 1990s, the expansion of online enrollments over the last decade, the reformist intentions of the Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education from 2005-2006, the great recession of 2007-2009, or the completion agenda supported by the Lumina and Gates Foundations over the last few years have all contributed to a public thirst for what look like very high-quality educational offerings at very low – or even zero – cost.

“I also call the last year,” Agarwal added, “ ‘the decade of innovation.’ ”

And like many innovations before them, MOOCs have been received with the usual contradictory apocalyptic fervor – where some believers foresee the arrival an educational golden age and others see the eventual destruction of our institutions, our faculty, and the intangible value of face-to-face learning.

Writing in The American Interest this month, for example, Nathan Harden claimed that “ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students.” He went on to argue that as a result of the MOOC movement, “the changes ahead will ultimately bring about the most beneficial, most efficient and most equitable access to education that the world has ever seen.”

At the other end of the apocalyptic continuum, Gregory Ferenstein, writing for TechCrunch last month, foresaw a future in which MOOCs wreaked a terrible devastation on the land, as “part-time faculty get laid off, more community colleges are shuttered, extracurricular college services are closed, and humanities and arts departments are dissolved for lack of enrollment.”

The real significance of MOOCs lies, however, not in their being a harbinger of our educational salvation or demolition. Nor does their real significance lie principally in their potential to increase access or reduce costs – at least not for Agarwal and edX.

“We are about two things,” Agarwal told me. “We are about dramatically increasing quality and impacting campus learning. We are being very deliberate. This is not a numbers game – this is not a game at all. This is a quality quest.”

Funded with $60 million in seed capital from MIT and Harvard, edX can make a claim to being the first MOOC platform to market, inasmuch as its predecessor, MITx, was launched in December 2011. Until this week, the edX consortium featured five independent member institutions (MIT, Harvard, the University of California at Berkeley, Georgetown University, and Wellesley College) and one state university system comprising 15 colleges and universities (the University of Texas System). Thursday, it added six more, including several outside the United States.

In less than a year, edX’s 25 courses have enrolled close to 700,000 people. “That’s more than the combined alumni of MIT and Harvard over their combined 500-year history,” Agarwal observed with a mixture of pride, enthusiasm and amazement. What really pleases him, though, is something else.

Rolling his chair across the office, Agarwal waves me over to his monitor and shows me the virtual laboratories edX has been developing for its courses. We start with his own course on Circuits and Electronics (6.002x in the edX course catalog).

“Many MOOCs are just about analyzing problems,” he said. “We give you a blank sheet of paper and say, ‘Go build, design, create, construct something.’ ” With drag-and-drop alacrity, Agarwal moves the components of a circuit into place on a piece of digital graph paper and clicks a button to test its performance. “Computers do the grading,” he said, “in real time.”

“The media focus on numbers, they focus on cost,” Agarwal sighed. “But they should focus on something else – quality. And they should focus on efficiency. What is efficiency? It’s a ratio of quality and cost.”

Agarwal knows that MOOCs have their doubters, and he believes that they can only be persuaded with proof. He cites the case of San Jose State University, which licensed his own course on circuits and ran it as an adjunct to the school’s own classroom-based instruction. The results, Agarwal claims, were impressive. “The fail rate dropped from 40 percent to 9 percent,” he told me. “That’s a quality improvement.” And the costs to San Jose State were minimal. That’s efficiency. Agarwal says San Jose will be sharing more details about their experience with edX in the near future.

With the avidity of the prototypical startup entrepreneur, Agarwal talked excitedly about the potential for MOOCs to improve pedagogy. “We have our xConsortium,” he said. “All of the schools in our consortium have access to all the data in the platform in an anonymized format. This is what I call ‘the particle accelerator of learning’ – big data in learning in real-time.” In a sense, then, edX’s quality quest, as Agarwal calls it, is seeking out the educational equivalent of the Higgs Boson, as well the other fundamental elements of learning, in order to better understand what kind of learning objects, what kind of real-time remediation, and what kind of learning materials – whether analysis or laboratory or other – produce the best results from one learning context to the next.

I ask Agarwal what distinguishes edX from its fellow MOOC platforms. “We have a fundamentally different mission,” he replied. “We’re nonprofit. We’re open source. Our technology is for everyone. And we have a commitment to campus learning.”

Earlier this month, the American Council on Education completed an evaluation of five courses on the Coursera platform, developed respectively by Duke University, the University of California at Irvine, and the University of Pennsylvania. Intriguingly, all five courses were approved for credit through the ACE credit transfer program. But just in case the future of MOOCs was beginning to make sense to you, consider this – all three of these institutions have made it clear that they, at least, will not be awarding credits for the courses, irrespective of the fact that they developed the courses themselves.

MOOCs are puzzling.

Will they last? It’s not, I suspect, a question that would bother Agarwal very much one way or the other. “For us,” he said, “it’s not about MOOCs. We are trying to reimagine our own campus. The lecture wasn’t working. Quality has been static for decades, but costs are going up. There’s a trillion dollars in student debt. We are trying reimagine campus education from the ground up – with new ways of learning that are more enriching, more engaging, more efficient, and that produce better outcomes.”

How do you like them apples?

Author Bio: Peter Stokes is executive director of postsecondary innovation in the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University

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