MASSIVE OPEN ONLINE COURSES
allow anyone with an internet connection to study practically any subject for free, and they represent an innovation that many industry observers expected to completely disrupt traditional education. However, that thinking has changed: While it seems likely that MOOCs will dramatically reshape the way education is delivered, today’s MOOCs seem poised to supplement current degree programs rather than supplant them. And yet, MOOCs themselves are still evolving, and higher education is evolving right along with them.
One of the best-known MOOC providers is edX, which was founded in 2012 by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology and today boasts more than 100 partner institutions. “edX was launched with a strong passion and commitment to our mission to increase access to high-quality education for everyone, everywhere,” says Anant Agarwal, MIT professor, CEO of edX, and the instructor of the first edX course.
How well has the organization met that goal? As of July 2016, edX has more than 8 million learners and more than 27 million course enrollments. Furthermore, learners come from every country on every continent.
Even so, Agarwal says the mission is ongoing. “We are looking to create a global movement that will change the world, and we will continue to grow our learner and partner base globally to achieve this. This year we celebrated edX’s fourth birthday, and it’s a great opportunity to look back on all that our learners have accomplished.” He recently discussed some of those accomplishments with BizEd.
How have MOOCs changed since they first came on the scene?
MOOCs have evolved considerably, and the conversation is now focused on MOOCs 2.0. We now are making learning more personal and adaptive by applying artificial intelligence, big data, and crowdsourcing techniques to the data we gather from MOOC learners.
We’re also focusing on integrity. As more MOOCs start to carry academic credit, there is a need to develop and enhance tools like virtual proctoring in order to ensure the validity of the academic credit earned.
When you launched edX, you believed that MOOCs could help you discover how students learn and how faculty teach, whether they’re in class or online. What are some insights you’ve gained?
The online environment provides a powerful platform to conduct experiments in teaching and learning, because every click in a course allows us to record data that we can analyze. For example, we were able to determine that the optimal length for videos in edX courses is six minutes or shorter. By seeing how long learners watch videos, where they drop off, and how they interact with videos when they’re engaged, we were able to develop better online teaching methods.
We also saw very quickly that learners benefit from active learning, meaning that they benefit when they receive instant feedback and have the ability to submit answers again and again until they get to the correct one. This is a strategy borrowed from gamification, in which players are allowed to fail and try again without penalty, a tactic that keeps them from losing interest or getting discouraged.
In addition, we discovered that students learn a great deal through collaboration. That’s especially true when they approach course discussion forums like they do social media—sharing instant feedback, answering each other’s questions, and interacting in ways that would be impossible in a physical classroom.
How has the advent of MOOCs changed the way professors teach on campus?
Many insights gained from MOOCs have translated directly into the classroom. For instance, when MIT professor John Belcher was teaching “Electricity and Magnetism,” he explored the use of edX to intensify in-class interactivity while improving out-ofclass learning. In this flipped classroom experiment, he made lectures and simulations available online so he could dedicate class time to collaborative projects and discussions. Students were allowed to submit many assignments online and have instant access to feedback. When students in the class were surveyed, 95 percent said the flipped classroom style benefited their overall experience, and 92 percent recommended applying the approach to other physics courses.
Professors also can employ more blended models, using online education to give students the fundamentals of a subject and using class time to delve into the details. This model creates better efficiencies in the classroom and can foster a better quality of education overall.
Are there other ways that MOOCs can be used to enhance learning in the traditional classroom?
At edX, we envision an online education model that is synergistic with on-campus learning. MOOCs are so flexible that they offer truly innovative approaches to education, such as allowing students to take some courses online and others in classrooms.
For instance, the MITx MicroMasters in Supply Chain Management, available on edX, is equivalent to the coursework of one graduate semester at MIT. Once learners complete the MITx MicroMasters online, they can apply for an accelerated, residential, one-semester master’s degree program in Supply Chain Management at the school. Stu- dents who earn that credit through the MOOC still must apply for admission to the business school.
Earning college credit for online learning is a relatively new component of MOOCs. How does it work at edX?
Because edX is committed to increasing access to education for anyone in the world, we have always made course content, forums, and assessments open and free for learners. That said, the ability to earn credentials is hugely important. For learners who want to earn verified certificates to advance their careers by adding credentials to their CVs or to their LinkedIn accounts, edX includes an option to pay.
Learners also can purchase verified certificates if they want to use MOOCs to earn college credit. The MicroMasters in Supply Chain is one example. Another is the Global Freshman Academy, a partnership between edX and Arizona State University. High school students who pay US$49 to enroll in the Verified Track of this program can earn college credit at ASU if they pass the course. They can choose to pay for the credit when they know they have passed the course, which reduces the financial risk.
A few individuals have designed what are essentially degree programs by picking and choosing relevant courses available through MOOCs. Have you followed their stories?
A great example of a learner who has benefited from the unbundling of education is Laurie Pickard, who assembled the curriculum for an MBA entirely via MOOCs. (See “The MOOCBased MBA” on page 38.) Researcher and writer Jon Haber also used MOOCs and other free forms of learning to try to earn the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in just 12 months. He chronicles his approach online in the blog Degree of Freedom One Year BA Project. While those learners were motivated to finish their courses, many critics point out that MOOCs have poor student retention rates. What’s the average rate of completion for edX courses? It varies from 5 percent to 80 percent, depending on what the subjects are, whether students are active learners, and whether they are enrolled in verified certificate or credit track programs. We attract learners with many different goals. Some have a traditional focus; they want to demonstrate mastery of a course and receive a certificate of completion. Others enroll solely to interact with other students and expand their understanding of the world around them. For students who simply want to audit a course, completion may not be the desired goal.
What metric should we use to measure whether MOOCs are successful, if not completion rates?
While completion rates, borrowed from the traditional university model, are certainly an important measure, they only represent one small segment of a diverse group of MOOC learners. With MOOCs, we need to change the lens through which we view student success, while also working toward further understanding and improving the learner experience.
We are capturing demographic information about our learners as it relates to the courses for which they register. We want to know where they are located, how old they are, and where their interests lie. We’re also measuring what they learn and how they learn it via coursework, assignments, discussion boards, and assessments. Additionally, we are measuring the impact of teaching techniques through student response and understanding. As we continue to gather learner and teaching data, we hope to move beyond course completion rates as the primary benchmark for measuring success.
MOOCs present amazing opportunities for students, as well as great challenges to traditional educational models. How do you think traditional schools should adjust their approaches if more students opt for free or low-cost online education?
As MOOCs become more and more the norm, the best thing universities can do is take an unbundled approach to education—by unbundling the clock, the curriculum, and the credential.
Unbundling the clock might mean allowing students to take the first year of college fully online, perhaps while they’re still in high school. They would spend the next two years on campus before joining the workforce for a few years to gain real-world skills. Finally— instead of taking the traditional fourth year at a university—they would take MOOCs or other online courses as needed throughout their careers.
In a world where such continuous lifelong education is the norm, universities also might be able to unbundle the curriculum. Historically, three- and four-year higher education institutions have tried to provide learners with a wide range of content and degree programs. While some older institutions can offer such variety, newer colleges find it difficult because of the challenges they encounter as they try to attract professors and build out their curricula. When universities unbundle the curriculum, they can focus on what they care about most—for instance, delivering a broad liberal arts education. Students who want specialized courses such as computer sciences can take those courses online from a third-party provider.
When universities unbundle the credential, students will have even more educational opportunities. For instance, they might be able to obtain digital credentials for smaller amounts of online work, as they can through the Global Freshman Academy or MicroMasters programs I mentioned earlier.
By unbundling their offerings and creating innovative delivery models, universities will open up new markets and save on operating costs. These efficiencies will help universities remain financially viable as MOOCs account for a bigger share of the market. CALLOUT: 8 MILLION learners are enrolled in edX as of July 2016.
Do you think MOOCs or other forms of online education ever will replace face-to-face learning altogether?
MOOCs won’t replace universities; they’ll enhance the quality of education by incorporating blended learning. In the future, education will be either blended or fully online. Purely face-to- face education will exist only in the history books.