Why Free Online Classes Are Still the Future of Education

The MOOC was The Next Big Thing—and then it was written off for dead. But for Anant Agarwal, one of the founding fathers of this online reboot of university education, it’s only just getting started.

Agarwal is an MIT computer science professor and the CEO of the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based non-profit, edX, one of several purveyors of so-called “massively open online courses,” or MOOCs, which offer free online classes from elite universities to anyone in the world. After it was buoyed by an enormous wave of hype two years ago, the MOOC has now plummeted in terms of public perception—with even one of its most prominent backers turning his back on the idea—but Agarwal is unbowed.

The way he sees it, effective uses of the MOOC model are only beginning to take shape. Enrollment in edX courses has doubled over last year, and he believes we’re on the verge of an era he calls MOOC 2.0. “We’ve been growing as others are throwing in the towel,” he says of edX

Such optimism is to be expected from a man who makes his livelihood from this model. But Agarwal isn’t alone in this opinion. This week, a team of researchers out of MIT, Harvard, and China’s Tsinghua University—all schools that offer MOOCs—released a study showing that students who attended a MIT physics class online learned as effectively as students who took the class in person. What’s more, the results were the same, regardless of how well the online students scored on a pre-test before taking the class.

“It’s an issue that has been very controversial,” said one of the study’s authors, Professor David Pritchard of MIT, in a statement. “A number of well-known educators have said there isn’t going to be much learning in MOOCs, or if there is, it will be for people who are already well-educated.”

The Rise and Fall and Rise

In 2012, The New York Times hailed “the year of the MOOC,” and it seemed that not a day went by that there wasn’t a news story about how edX—and similar companies like Coursera and Udacity–were poised to radically change and democratize education. But then came the inevitable backlash. Critics pointedly accused these companies of overstating their potential. They cited the fact that an eye-poppingly low number of students ever finish the classes as proof that the MOOC model was fundamentally broken.

Even Sebastian Thrun, founder and CEO of Udacity and one of the MOOC’s earliest supporters turned his back on the model, transitioning Udacity into an online vocational school of sorts for tech companies. In an interview with Fast Companylast fall, Thrun discussed the shift, saying: “I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product.”

But studies like the one from MIT are providing new fuel for people like Agarwal. It’s an affirmation of the very thing they’ve been saying all along: that it’s possible to get a quality college education without the hefty price tag. But at the same time, he says the MOOC is capable of much more. What interests Agarwal most these days are all the other, unexpected use cases for the MOOC that he and his colleagues are only beginning to discover. “There’s the side of MOOCs that you see and a whole other side that you don’t see,” he says.

Agarwal says he was “astounded,” for instance, by the fact that entire countries have begun adopting edX’s open source platform, called Open edX, which allows anyone to use edX’s infrastructure to launch their own MOOCs. Now, countries as diverse as France, China, and perhaps most surprisingly, Saudi Arabia, have launched national education platforms powered by edX. In Saudi Arabia, the Ministry of Labor is using Open edX to educate more women, disabled citizens, and people living in rural areas. “This is something I could not have dreamed about,” Agarwal says.

Big MOOC on Campus

In addition to connecting people to education online, MOOCs are also starting to find their way on campus, as universities like MIT and others are adopting what’s known as a blended learning model. In a blended learning environment, students receive most of their lectures by video so they can spend class time doing hands on work. At MIT, Agarwal says, two out of every three undergrads use edX as part of their on campus courses.

Another unintended consequence of MOOCs is the massive amount of data they produce on how people learn best. EdX has found, for instance, that the longer a video lecture runs, the less time students spend watching it. So if a video lasts 40 minutes, students may only watch it for 2. If it’s 6 minutes long, they’ll watch the whole thing.

Such insight questions the very format of the college lecture, which often involves a professor pontificating on a topic for an hour or more. “It says learners want to learn in bite-sized chunks,” he says. Now, edX has even launched A/B testing on its site, allowing professors to try out different methods of teaching and comparing student outcomes. “It’s how a professor can begin to learn what’s working and what’s not working and have a process for improving the course,” he says.

More recently, edX found yet another application for its courses: college prep. In an effort to cut their budgets, school districts across the country have cancelled advanced placement courses, even as students increasingly look to those courses as a way to cut down on college tuition costs. EdX is now hoping to fill that gap by allowing students to take those courses online.

Not only that, but edX is also offering courses in college admissions guidance, where students and parents can learn about things like attaining financial aid and writing a college essay. Such skills have also become casualties of budget cuts, as schools reduce the number of guidance counselors on staff. “Now you don’t have to have a rich school district to get good guidance,” Agarwal says.

Let’s Not Go Too Far

Of course, MOOCs are not without their flaws. Agarwal admits that as long as MOOCs are free—and they probably always will be—low completion rates will persist. And as long as there are lousy teachers—and there probably always will be—there will be lousy courses.

But to condemn the entire model for these kinks would be like condemning Uber for the possibility of getting a bad driver or Airbnb for the chance that a guest might trash your house. These companies needed the freedom to figure out how to deal with these issues.

Perhaps more importantly, they needed the space to figure out what purpose they really serve. It’s that kind of patience that’s allowed Uber to grow from a taxi service to an on-demand delivery giant, and enabled Airbnb to transform itself into a full-scale hospitality brand, not simply a tool for finding a cheap couch to crash on. To judge a breakthrough technology by only its earliest flaws is to ignore all the good it might do when given the time and the trust to do it.

Published here.

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