As many of edX’s first courses come to a close, the online learning initiative continues to grow. EdX spokesman Dan O’Connell told The Tech last week that edX had reached half a million unique registrants. Yesterday edX announced its newest partner, Georgetown University, which joins just on the heels of Wellesley College, whose own addition to the list of “X Universities” was announced last week. Wellesley is the first liberal arts college to join edX.
Both Georgetown and Wellesley will begin offering courses via edX next fall, as will the University of Texas perhaps as soon as next summer, according to O’Connell. Next spring, Harvard, MIT, and UC Berkeley will be offering 15 to 20 courses, including edX’s first courses in the humanities. Seven of the nine courses edX currently offers are in computer science or electrical engineering.
For most of the courses on edX, hardly an hour passes without a new thread appearing on the discussion board. The students who post include Massachusetts middle school students, Kazakhastani undergraduates, and 60-year-old corporate managers. On the forums, they share solutions after exams, report errors and glitches, compare grades, complain about the background music in course videos, advertise Facebook groups, express their thanks, and tell jokes (“metal bands are so 1980s” gets 26 upvotes on 3.091x Introduction to Solid-State Chemistry).
It’s not surprising that edX students are also aware of other platforms that offer free massive open online courses, often comparing them with edX. User lucaspottersky praised edX’s forum UI above Coursera’s, for example, while nagalman says that “after 6.00x, I am going back to Udacity.” The artificial intelligence class received feedback from contik32. “If you have problems developing proper solutions providing proper diagnostics output, I suggest you to consult your colleagues at Princeton University (CS dept) who managed to provide excellent diagnostics for their grader at Coursera.”
The first edX course to finish was CS169.1x, the first half of BerkeleyX’s Software as a Service class, which is taught by Armando Fox ’90 and David Patterson. The edX course attracted about 30,000 registrants, but only about 3,000 students stayed and passed, according to Fox, who says that 10 percent is a common passing rate for MOOCs. Those who passed CS169.1x have received free certificates from edX. Their performance was comparable to that of Berkeley students, Fox said.
Before Berkeley joined edX, CS169.1 was offered three times on Coursera, with a class size of between 20,000 and 50,000 in each iteration. Coursera, which launched its first course six months before edX, boasts 33 university partners, over two million registered students, and 208 courses representing a much wider range of topics than edX. But Berkeley chose to join edX, which “reflects the fact that edX and UC Berkeley have similar values,” such as a commitment to an open platform, Fox wrote in an email to The Tech. “The founders of Coursera and Udacity are close colleagues of ours and we wish them success, but as an institution we felt the alignment of goals was better with edX, and the risk of stumbling (over 90 percent of startups end up exiting differently than expected) was lower,” he added. “I think it will be a very successful collaboration.”
One surprise from teaching his class online was the extent to which developing the online content enhanced the on-campus course. Berkeley students gave higher evaluations to the course after the instructors introduced reorganized lectures and wrote automatic graders of student code, which were necessary for the MOOC. The online format also allows instructors to collect data about student performance, which Fox plans to use to “polish and calibrate the questions for on-campus students.”
Berkeley’s residential Software as a Service course included both material on the edX platform and elements so far only possible in an on-campus course, like a team design project in which students work with customers from outside the university. Fox believes that this combination will be “a major use case at Berkeley and elsewhere for MOOC technologies” in the future. “At the moment it’s one that the MOOC startups do not seem to support.”
But Fox has not yet converted to the “flipped classroom,” though he is considering experimenting with it. Often touted as the future of education on college campuses, the flipped classroom model uses class time for discussions or problem-solving, leaving the introduction of new concepts (traditionally the domain of lectures) to online videos or reading to be completed outside of class. “I’ve had colleagues at Berkeley and elsewhere who tried it. Of the three most recent, one was a disaster, one was an unqualified success, and one turned out only OK.” Fox thinks that the effectiveness of the flipped classroom depends on the instructor and the students. One possibility for the future Fox suggested was offering both traditional and flipped formats simultaneously and letting students pick which class they wanted to take.
Perhaps one reason Fox continues to teach MOOCs is the impact they can have on students’ futures. He estimated that online versions of Software as a Service have changed “tens or hundreds” of lives for the better. “[They] now have better career opportunities by getting this instruction that would otherwise be unavailable to them.”