The first seven courses to be offered under edX — set to open to at various dates in September and October — will probably reach thousands of students around the globe. But both MIT and UC Berkeley, who joined the online learning initiative in July, say they also plan to use the edX platform to enhance education for their own students. How are the edX schools progressing towards this goal?
EdX president Anant Agarwal hopes that edX will eventually be able to “influence all of MIT’s on-campus education,” across all its disciplines, he told The Tech last week.
So far, however, the course offering is limited. Five of the seven courses to be offered this fall are in the fields of computer science or electrical engineering.
Berkeley’s CS188, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, became the first class launched using edX software when Berkeley students began using it on August 23. The same content will be available to online registrants for the class when its BerkeleyX version opens on September 24.
EdX’s 6.002x course from MIT, first offered as part of the older MITx, will see its second iteration this fall. In the first run of the Circuits and Electronics course, the nearly 155,000 registrants around the world were joined by 20 MIT students, who took the experimental online course for credit.
“A majority of the [on-campus] students said they would take such a class again,” said Agarwal. Among those 20 students were Bethany A. LaPenta ’14, David L. Ku, and David M. Lawrence ’14, who spoke positively about the experience with Technology Review. Lyla J. Fischer, head teaching assistant for the class, said that she would have liked the opportunity to take the MITx version as a student. Fischer had earlier taken the traditional version of the class on campus.
New this fall from MIT is 3.091x, Introduction to Solid State Chemistry. But 6.002x’s on-campus experiment will not be extended on a large scale for this GIR just yet. Though MIT students taking 3.091 will have access to the online content, it will only serve as a supplement to the main class, Professor Michael J. Cima noted in an email.
EdX emphasizes on their website and in press releases that their courses retain the full rigor of MIT courses. Of the 69,221 online students who looked at the first problem set of 6.002x, only 7,157 went on to earn a certificate for the course. Some of the 20 MIT students also showed “trouble keeping up,” says Fischer.
The MITx team was able to offer specific help and attention to the 20 MIT students. Fischer says that MITx was “more responsive to their emails.”
But all else being equal, do students using MITx or edX perform better than their counterparts in conventional classes?
Agarwal said last Friday that edX has not yet carried out a formal assessment of the 6.002x class for MIT students. Cima told The Tech that “MIT’s Teaching and Learning Lab is helping evaluate all this, and over the next two years we will be trying to measure outcomes that will test our hypothesis.”
Cima sees potential in edX. “I think there is a case to be made that younger people learn in a different way than I did. Young people today are used to being able to dive instantly into a topic and go as deep as they want or need,” he wrote in an email. “It is legitimate to ask whether the 50 minute lecture is the best vehicle for these students to learn.”
“As much as it hurts to say it, many students like the video version of me better than me in person,” Cima added, saying that 3.091 students like to watch recorded lectures and skip around or replay segments. “I feel better about this when I know that students actually learn the material.”
LaPenta, Ku, Fischer, and Agarwal have all mentioned one convenience afforded to 6.002x students: flexible scheduling. For example, students could choose when they wanted to watch the videos and even how fast they wanted the videos to play.
Is anything lost when a class is stripped of its in-person element? Students differed over whether replacing physical experiments with digital simulations was a change for the better, according to Technology Review’s August article on 6.002x.
For the 20 MIT students, the experimental 6.002x class also included optional face-to-face meetings. They were not well attended, Fischer says. Instead, students used the online discussion boards and class wiki.
Another part of the traditional academic class that edX will have to rethink is the challenge of grading student work. “The MITx evaluation process is not yet as capable as what we can do with the residence based program. It is, however, capable of very immediate feedback. Thus, the 5 minute videos of 3.091x will be followed by a few questions to test their comprehension of the topic just covered,” wrote Cima.
If edX is to fulfill Agarwal’s vision, it will have to include subjects that require evaluation of essays and other types of open-ended responses. Agarwal proposes three solutions: (1) evaluation by peers, (2) evaluation by computer programs, and (3) evaluation by “crowdsourced” graders, referring to a process by which large amounts of work are farmed out to people on the Internet.
Should these methods prove as accurate as traditional grading by hand, it will be one more facet of a university education — for which students at MIT and elsewhere pay stiff tuitions — to be offered for free on edX.
But at the suggestion that initiatives like edX will devalue MIT classes, Agarwal insists that it is the “exact opposite” — he says edX will improve education everywhere, including at MIT, where students will have the chance to benefit from a “blended experience.” Cima feels the same: “The only reason I am participating in this is that MITx is providing resources that will improve my residence-based course.”
Cima still allows for the possibility that “we could be wrong. It could be that the 50 minute chalk and talk lecture is actually better.” But whether or not online classes improve education for MIT students, Cima does not see edX as giving away the experience of residential students. “While I like to think MIT-based students will have the advantage of working directly with faculty, the real advantage for resident students is that they can work with other MIT students! I saw the stats for the class of 2016. My reaction was that I could have never gotten in to MIT. This may be the most accomplished class in MIT’s history. You cannot get that over the web.”
Fischer agrees. An online class will “never ever be the same,” she said.