A quantum Leap for Distance Learning

In a May 2, 2012 New York Times article, “Harvard and M.I.T. Team Up to Offer Free Online Courses” Tamar Lewin reported on a significant development in world-scale online higher education courses. A new nonprofit partnership, known as edX, would be offering free online courses to the world. This partnership followed the launching in March, 2012 of M.I.T.’s first massive online course, Circuits and Electronics. 155,000 students, from 162 countries were enrolled, and some 7,000 finished the course and were entitled to a certificate of mastery and a grade, but no official credit. Similarly, edX courses will offer a certificate but, for now at least, not credit.

When questioned about the low online course completion rate in a WBUR Radio Boston interview on August 20th Anant Agrawal, the President of edX, and an M.I.T. researcher who taught the course, explained that many of those who enrolled were just experimenting; although this had been explained before enrollment, others, he said, found that it was a tough course, not at all watered down. He suggested that a different way of looking at the results was that there were 7,200 people from across the globe who had mastered a demanding course and for free. He mentioned that the quality of the results from the online course were comparable to a brick and mortar control group of 20 students. Agrawal pointed out that for M.I.T. to enroll 7,000 learners in this course as a 20-person brick and mortar class would take 30-40 years.

In the Circuits and Electronics class, asynchronous “video sequences” of from three to 15 minutes replaced brick and mortar lectures. These were “interleaved” with interactive exercises, a free online textbook, online interactive laboratories, and simulations (sophisticated online learning games).

Agrawal was asked how they solved the problem of responding to questions from 155,000 students with a staff of seven people, the same number typically available to 100 students enrolled in these classes.. He explained that from the beginning of the course students were told that part of their responsibility, if they understood the material, was to help those who didn’t by responding to questions in the online threaded discussions. Most students’ questions were answered by other students; Agrawal said that students often did not need the instructor.

EdX plans in September and October, 2012 to offer seven courses: three from M.I.T., two from Harvard, and two from the University of California at Berkeley. Subject areas include computer science and programming, public health research, and solid state chemistry in addition to the Circuits and Electronics Course. Enrollment appears to be going well with 5-10,000 students registering each week.

Agrawal was asked if he thought, for cost reasons and others, that online learning would eliminate campus-based learning. He said that online learning doesn’t replace the experience of campus-based learning, where there is face-to-face interaction with faculty and with other students. He thinks that “Online learning is a rising tide that will lift all boats, including campus-based teaching,” that online learning can create multiple, blended models with a campus experience and online courses, in colleges and universities as well as high schools across the world.

Is this an important new development in online learning? Agrawal thinks so, “that online learning will disrupt learning across the world, that this is the first time educators are applying modern-day computing techniques to education at scale, that education is the last frontier to be impacted by modern-day technology such as cloud computing, the Internet and online devices”, that this is the first time that web mobility has been applied in a concerted manner at a large scale to address important education needs. He also said that in the spring 2012 semester M.I.T. Circuits and Electronics course learners from many countries worked together across national boundaries on problem sets, that he sees this as a new multinational process of collaboration. He agreed that it is difficult to predict what the state of online courses will be in twenty or even ten years, but one possibility is a new world generation of bright, young people accustomed to collaborating with people from other countries to solve problems. Of one thing he said he is sure, that “Online learning technologies will disrupt education in a number of ways: scalability, efficiency and quality of learning.”

As the New York Times article pointed out, edX is not alone in offering these massively open online courses (MOOCS). In May Stanford, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan announced a partnership with a new commercial company called Coursera, and Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor who taught his Artificial Intelligence course in the fall of 2011 to 160,000 students now will be offering six MOOC courses through his new company, Udacity.” Both edX and Coursera will also be offering humanities as well as science courses.


Lewin, Tamar. “Harvard and M.I.T. Team Up to Offer Free Online Courses” New York Times Retrieved 8.25.12 from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/03/education/harvard-and-mit-team-up-to-offer-free-online-courses.html?adxnnl=1&ref=tamarlewin&adxnnlx=1345925954-dHj5B0nQgfQWq227R/I8ZQ or tinyurl.com/9sofzsf
WBUR Radio Boston August 20, 2012 Interview with Anant Agrawal Retrieved 8.25.12 from radioboston.wbur.org/2012/08/20/higher-education-online

EdX www.edx.org/


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