Anant Agarwal runs EdX.org, the Harvard-MIT open-education site, and he’s here to talk MOOCs, those “massively open online courses” that have generated both excitement and skepticism throughout the chattering world of the digital classes.
Agarwal shows a picture of a lecture hall in MIT from 50 years ago. Then one of the scene from today. What has changed? Not much, it seems. “The seats are in color?” he offers. “Whoopdie do.”
Classroom education hasn’t really changed in the past 50 years. EdX and similar programs are an attempt to be the change the education field needs to see, an attempt to disrupt a calcified industry that Agarwal says needs no less than to be shattered and rebuilt from the ground up. He wants to share some insights gleaned since the launch of EdX, when 155,000 students from 162 countries signed up for an MIT course on circuits and electronics. That’s more than the total number of MIT alumni across the university’s 150-year history. “I would have to teach 40 years before I could teach this many students,” he says.
A blended model of learning isn’t just smart because it’s possible; it’s smart because it’s appropriate for the new generation of students. Agarwal tells the story of trying to communicate with his daughter, who he says began speaking a new language as soon as she turned 13. “I call it Teenglish,” he says. “It has two sounds: grunt and silence.” There are clearly some other parents of teenagers in the audience: knowing, hearty laughs fill the room. More so when Agarwal describes adopting a new system to communicate with her: texting. “Our lives have changed. I text her, she responds. It’s been absolutely great,” he says happily.
There’s a serious message here: why don’t teachers use these forms of technology in the classroom too? “Let’s not fight this in classroom,” he says. “Let’s embrace technology and the millennial generation’s natural predilections.” Just because old people suffered and had to go to school at eight in the morning doesn’t mean we have to inflict this system on our children. Shifting the emphasis and manner of teaching might just influence the amount of learning that actually happens.
It’s early days for MOOCs and online learning, but Agarwal shares some of the key things he and his team have learned so far:
1. Active Learning. Rather than have students sit in class watching a lecture, teach by asking questions. This is hardly a new idea — Craik and Lockhart wrote the seminal paper on the topic in 1972. Nonetheless, it could still use being adopted more broadly. “Students learn much better when interacting with material.”
2. Self-pacing. Agarwal recalls his own undergraduate experience, of scrambling to make notes and promptly missing half of a lecturer’s insights. With online engagement, students can hit the pause button. “They can rewind the professor,” he says. “They can even mute the professor.”
3. Instant Feedback. The green check mark telling online students they’re heading in the right direction has become an icon of the courses, he says. “Instant feedback turns teaching moments into learning outcomes.”
4. Gamification. It’s a terrible buzzword, but integrating principles of gaming and interaction into learning is not a bad idea. Agarwal shows some video of students interacting with Lego-style games to learn about building circuits.
5. Peer Learning. He tells of sitting up to monitor the online forum when EdX first launched. He’s a slow typist, he confesses, so by the time he’d typed an answer to a student, someone else had already answered the question. Incorrectly, true, but then someone else popped up with their take. Fascinated, Agarwal refrained from adding his opinion and watched as the students figured out the answer together. “I just had to bless it as a good answer. This was amazing to me.”
It’s early days for MOOCs and online education, but Agarwal’s dream is no less to reimagine the entire discipline of education, to move from lecture halls to e-spaces, from books to tablets, from bricks and mortar school buildings to what he describes as digital dormitories. “We will still need one lecture hall in our universities,” he says. “Otherwise, how else do we tell our grandchildren that their grandparents sat in that room in neat rows like corn stalks? And didn’t even have a rewind button.”