“We need to change everything on campus”

Jan 27, 2014 /


Whenever something is declared the subject of “the year of,” you know that subject is ripe for a big fat backlash. So, when The New York Times declared 2012 “the year of the MOOC,” it thus came to pass that massive open online courses should next become the subject of massive, open, often online criticism, as critics gathered to air both their disappointment that said courses had not in fact proven the savior of a broken education system — and almost transparent delight and glee at same.

That’s not to say that the MOOC bubble couldn’t stand to lose some of its air. Maybe it’s no bad thing that some of that shiny techno-utopian language got buffed from the courses’ gilded surfaces. The reality is that those responsible for MOOCs are still figuring out how to make them work, and they’re experimenting and adjusting as they go.

Case in point: Anant Agarwal, who spoke at TED Global in Edinburgh in June 2013. Agarwal is president of edX, the nonprofit “online learning destination” founded by Harvard and MIT. We caught up with him on the phone to find out what he makes of the anti-MOOC rhetoric — and why he thinks a “blended learning” model of education that includes online and offline resources might just prove the real key to a vibrant education system of the future. An edited version of our conversation follows.

So let’s start with the question on everyone’s lips: what do you make of the backlash against MOOCs?

Initially there was a lot of talk about MOOCs being the solution to all of the world’s problems. And clearly they’re important; they can increase access to students who don’t have access to good quality education. But even when we started edX, we talked about MOOCs and the blended model on campus and of campus education as being a key part of the whole equation. So for us it comes as no surprise that a pure MOOC model, a completely online model, will not work so well on campus. There, a blended model can be even better than a purely online model. The backlash you’re seeing was more a backlash to the statement that MOOCs can cure the world of all educational ills. The answer is no. MOOCs have a very important place in increasing access to a large community of students. At the same time, if you take MOOC technology and blend it with in-person class help, we can achieve the blended model, which is even better and can improve campus education.

In your talk, you describe the idea that the education system has to be rethought from the ground up. But what I’m hearing is that actually this isn’t revolution; it’s evolution. This is bringing technology in where appropriate, not imagining that technology can cure everything. Is that accurate?

I guess what I’m saying is we really have to reimagine education as we know it. We won’t solve it just by tweaking one aspect of it. We don’t have a clear answer yet but as an example, we need to change everything on campus. We need to move from students coming to lectures and sitting around for an hour to their watching video and doing interactive exercises at their own pace. We need to change our spaces from large lecture halls to small learning spaces. We need to think about unbundling content, where previously the professor would produce everything, but instead now the content may come from online sources and the professor. Instead of imagining a full year of university, what about a different program where students take half the courses as MOOCs, and half on campus as blended courses? I do hold to the view we have to rethink all aspects of education from the ground up and that a little tweak here or there is not going to be the answer.

Do you see this happening? Are you heartened by the discussion or are you finding there’s a kneejerk defensive stance from university leaders to this kind of thinking?

I think the kneejerk reaction and negativity you see is in the press, but I’m actually very heartened. A number of universities are moving in the direction and experimenting with the blended model. I see that as the next step, the evolutionary way for heading towards the right answer in 20 or 30 years down the road. We don’t know what the right answer is but the blended model is an evolutionary step in path, and we’re seeing more and more of that.

At MIT, for example, over 2,000 of the 4,500 undergraduates are accessing the edX platform and online content in some form or the other already. It’s just 1.5 years since we began and now we have nearly 100 blended courses happening around the world.

Unlike some of the other MOOC providers, edX is a non-profit. Obviously the initiative also needs to sustain itself – where are you with the business model currently?

Certainly we have a lot more understanding of that now than when I gave the talk. We are getting revenues as we speak. One model is that we open-sourced the platform. That means it can be used by anyone to host and offer courses. We’ve seen huge interest in this: the Chinese education ministry and Tsinghua university created a consortium of universities in China to offer a platform they call XeutangX. France launched France Universite Numerique; in the Middle East, the Queen Rania Foundation launched Edraak, an Arabic language platform. All of these national platforms use the open edX code and that creates a revenue model, in that they look for support from edX, and they’re interested in licensing courses from edX partner universities for a fee, translating them and offering these courses to their own populations.

We also have a “business to consumer” model where students pay a fee for identity verified certificates. That’s going quite well. We currently have 12 courses offering certificates.

So you’re at MIT, you’re working with Harvard and Berkeley and so on. These are well-funded well-established institutions; they attract students without difficulty and those students pay a lot of money to go there. How does this framework exist on top of that university-funded model without being, well, parasitic on that existing infrastructure? How do MOOCs benefit the professors and colleges themselves?

I see MOOCs as being completely synergistic with the traditional university model. As professors and universities produce MOOCs and run MOOCs on the edX platform, we also make the platform available to universities to use on campus for blended education. For example, Professor Armando Fox teaches a MOOC on edX on software as a service, and he uses the same content in his own class at UC Berkeley, where he teaches a blended class.

Then there’s what I call the unbundling of time. Today, universities have a four-year program. I see a time in the future where rather than students coming in for four years to do a bachelor’s degree, they’ll come in having taken their first year of courses as MOOCs. Then they’ll spend two years on campus, spend the final year getting a job and continuing to take MOOCs and becoming lifelong continuous learners. That might be another way in which the MOOC education might become a continuous blend into campus education over time.

I confess, I am not an engineer. I studied English and Latin at university and I’m curious about how you’re managing humanities within the edX platform. You tell a great story in your talk about a guy who really missed the green check mark that shows he answered a question correctly. How does that check mark apply when it comes to something like English literature?

We do have a large number of humanities courses on our platform. “Was Alexander Great?” is from Wellesley College. There’s a course on Chinese history from Harvard, one on globalization from Georgetown. You could hardly call these technical courses, and we have various technologies to work with humanities courses.

First of all, many humanities courses use discussion forums liberally. Students have discussions on forums about concepts in the class. The second approach is we are able to create cohorts, which are smaller group discussions within a larger discussion forum. Third is that we have a number of technologies to grade humanities courses. One is self-assessment, where the students grade themselves. Next is peer assessment, where students grade each other’s work. And third is AI assessment, where we have a machine learning computer program grade student essays. There are multiple ways to grade essays. But we know in reality these are still in experimental form and our hope is over time we will keep improving these technologies to best serve the humanities.

I do wonder how kindly my peers would have graded my papers. I’m not sure they’d have been all that generous.

Absolutely. Grading humanities is always challenging. Particularly because, unlike in some of the sciences, in humanities, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. From my own experience, rarely have I submitted an essay where I have been happy with the grade or thought it was consistent with what I thought the grade should have been. With science there tends to be more consistency, humanities less so. The qualitative aspect certainly makes things more challenging.

There’s a lot going on at edX. You just launched Forum Academy, a new platform offering professional leadership courses presented in collaboration with the World Economic Forum. Meanwhile, 150,000 students signed up almost instantly for a Harvard computer programming course taught by David Malan. That’s pretty crazy growth… so what keeps you up at night?

Oh, that’s an endless list. We are doing something here, trying to improve something that is so fundamental and so important to everybody. The stakes are really high. We have to do it right. We have to improve quality of education and we also have to increase access to education. We really need to do a good job, and the task is really daunting, but our team is up to it.