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Nearly six months ago, Harvard and MIT announced the launch of edX, billed as a new online learning platform that would revolutionize education for students around the world seeking. But the universities associated with the nonprofit venture­ — which now include the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Texas system schools — are also in it to improve their residential classes. This fall, several courses that MIT students are taking on campus — including freshman General Institute Requirement 8.01 (Physics I) — are also making use of edX software.

MIT Professor and edX President Anant Agarwal is fond of saying that he sees edX as a “rising tide that will lift all boats,” that is, both for students attending an “X University” and those who aren’t. He envisions that those who are will benefit from “blended model” of education combining traditional classroom interaction with online content.

Of the classes at MIT currently using edX software, the Experimental Studies Group and Concourse versions of 8.01 do so most extensively. Students access reading material, example exercises, videos, animations, and problem sets all on the edX platform.

New concepts are introduced to students as they go through the online sequence. Students must demonstrate that they understand the new material by answering online “reading questions,” which are due before class. Then, during class, teachers can spend less time on theory and more time showing students how to untangle more involved problems.

“The teacher doesn’t have to spend time in class on stuff like, ‘What’s the definition of momentum?’” said Haley M. Hurowitz ’16, who is taking the Experimental Study Group (ESG) version of 8.01. She said that the classes were basically problem-solving sessions.

The mainstream TEAL version of 8.01 also uses reading questions and follows the same approach, but using standard PDF course notes rather than the multimedia mix used by ESG and Concourse students.

“Most of the students are doing the reading questions on time, and the average score on assignments is usually between 80 and 90 percent,” Lecturer Saif Rayyan wrote in an email to The Tech. Rayyan, lecturer for 8.01, along with Analia Barrantes, helped develop the online content. As postdocs in the Research in Learning, Assessing and Tutoring Effectively group, both previously looked for ways to improve classes by analyzing student data. Rayyan maintains a keen interest in a data-driven approach to improving education. “One of the main reasons we are using edX is the great potential of being able to collect more data about student performance,” he wrote. “In the future, we would like to enable the teacher to look at performance data on the assignments before class, figure out what concepts were harder for the students, and adjust the presentation during class.”

Reading questions (branded as “concept questions”) are also used in 3.091 Introduction to Solid-State Chemistry, albeit in a limited way. Students are only required to answer one multiple-choice question before each lecture.

Student perspectives

“I have asked a few students if they liked the system, and many answered that they liked doing the questions,” says Rayyan, though he admits that his sample size is small. “It helps them go over the basic concepts quickly before class.”

However, not everyone uses the reading questions honestly. According to mainstream 8.01 students Hayden R. Jansen ’16 and David S. Jin ’16, who said that though they did not cheat, they were aware of a way to game the system that others might be using.

Most of the reading questions for the mainstream 8.01 students are multiple-choice; since students are allowed several submission attempts, they can complete the reading questions without knowing the material if they work in groups. Each student in the group simply uses up one submission on a different guess at the answer. One of the students will chance upon the correct answer, which can then be copied by the rest of the group with no penalty.

“I guess in a way it’s kind of to be expected,” Jansen said. “It’s kind of hard to imagine MIT students not trying to find a way to get out of it.”

For Hurowitz, the setup in which students learn concepts and answer reading questions outside of class has sometimes proved to be a time-saver. “If a concept is something you already know, you can just go through and answer the questions. If not, you know exactly where to find the notes on that topic.” Since the basics are taken care of before class, “The teacher doesn’t have to waste time on teaching concepts and can work on harder problems in class, so that the p-sets are easier to do.”

The problem sets for ESG and Concourse students in 8.01 are also on the interactive edX platform, which they can use to check their answers and get immediate feedback. However, students still submit write-ups of their solutions. “Basically I’ve gotten all perfect p-set scores [because of edX],” Hurowitz said. “I’ve often been like, ‘Oh, I would have missed that question if I hadn’t checked it on edX,’” she explained.

Hurowitz also said she appreciated the organization of the content on edX. Since all the notes, examples, and problems for a topic are in one place, studying for tests is much easier, according to Hurowitz.

Jansen said that among those not completely satisfied with the system were some upperclassmen he knew who were retaking 8.01. “If you’re going to do [the reading questions] correctly, you have to already know it [the material] beforehand,” he said, noting that the class model left little room for the traditional role of the lecture as a time for learning new concepts. For Jansen, the new class structure is unnecessary. “I’m pretty happy with the lecture style,” he said, thinking of 5.111 and 7.012. But he admits, “When [edX] is not glitchy, it’s alright.”

Evaluating edX

Last semester, 20 students in 6.002 Circuits and Electronics volunteered to be part of a first test of the blended model, which used edX materials more extensively than any course now. Agarwal estimated that the students in the volunteer group each spent between six and ten hours on the class each week, mostly online, watching instructional videos and completing exercises on the MITx software platform at their own pace. The in-person component of the blended model took a back seat to the online materials. Two hours each week were set aside for face-to-face classroom interaction, including discussions and physical demonstrations, but these optional classes were poorly attended.

Several of the students spoke positively about the class with Technology Review. Agarwal said that students liked the flexibility the online format afforded. Students could work on the class when and where they wanted to. Even the pacing was adjustable — video snippets could be paused or watched at 1.5x speed as needed.

Agarwal also suggested that this flexibility was more suited to students’ sleep schedules than traditional lectures would be, citing peaks in downloads between midnight and 2 a.m. He also entertained the idea that a new style of learning was needed for a “new generation of students who are much more comfortable with digital technology.”

Agarwal declined to say whether the 20 students testing out the blended model performed better than the rest of the class. “The group was self-selected,” he said. “It’s difficult to do an apples-to-apples comparison.”

The experiment is not being repeated in this semester’s 6.002 class. “This time around it’s the traditional campus class, but students have been pointed to the edX materials,” Agarwal said. The second iteration of 6.002x, the massive open online course on edX, is still in progress.

Agarwal also said that many of the efforts to integrate edX into residential classes fall into the “exploratory category.” MIT is currently testing how well laboratory experiments can be simulated online in the on-campus 6.004 Computation Structures class. There are clear cases when something in the in-person experience is lost.

“If you burned a resistor, you couldn’t smell it,” Agarwal said. “A lot of students don’t like the fact that equipment breaks, but that’s a fact of real life.”

Not everything edX has brought to the table has been a new idea. 8.01 previously used a paper version of the reading question system, and students were already doing physics problems and getting immediate feedback online years ago on Mastering Physics. Lecture videos have been on OpenCourseWare for nearly a decade. EdX aspires to fix the flaws of older systems and introduce new features. 8.01 Professor Deepto Chakrabarty said that physics students will soon be able to take advantage of edX’s symbolic manipulation abilities. “You enter a mathematical expression, and it can tell you if it’s equivalent to the answer.”

But Rayyan argues that it’s more than that. “A lot of the learning happens outside class — whenever students read or watch content, solve p-sets, answer questions, or work together collaboratively. EdX will enable us to understand and improve the quality of learning outside class. By collecting data on what people do in edX, we will be able to tell what educational resources helped them, what did not, and what were their points of strength and weakness.” All of this is still a work in progress, however. “Professor Isaac Chuang is working with edX on integrating analytics in the current system to enable us to look at the data more effectively.”

“At some point in the semester we will ask students for more detailed feedback to better evaluate what is working and what is not,” Rayyan added.

The extent to which edX will be incorporated in residential classes remains to be seen. Everything is still in the process of being refined, according to Agarwal. “Different professors are experimenting with different approaches on campus.”

“I think it’s too early to say what the optimal way do this is,” Chakrabarty said.