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MIT and Harvard presidents Susan J. Hockfield and Drew Faust announce edX during a press conference on May 2. “We come together with conviction to say that online education is not an enemy of residential education, but rather a profoundly liberating and inspiring ally,” Hockfield said.
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They’re called MOOCs, and it was the M for Massive that really started turning heads.

For every student in the lecture hall, there were a thousand more dotted around the globe who had signed up for the new massive open online course in artificial intelligence taught by Stanford professors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig in the fall of 2011. Two other free online courses from Stanford also saw unexpectedly large enrollments. Students who passed the courses didn’t receive college credit, but they did earn signed “statements of accomplishment.”

Breaking barriers, democratizing education — these visions galvanized the world of higher education, and suddenly everyone wanted to offer MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Since MIT’s OpenCourseWare made a splash in 2002, many universities had been making course materials available online. Fewer, though, had initiatives like Stanford’s or Carnegie Mellon’s that actually gave feedback to online students.

After the three popular MOOCs from Stanford, other universities scrambled to develop their own distance education programs. New companies, organizations, and websites are still sprouting up to fill different niches in the burgeoning arena, whether they’re providing reviews of MOOCs, allowing users to create their own courses, or partnering with universities to offer MOOCs. The mission to offer free education to the world hasn’t come without its politics — in June 2012 the president of the University of Virginia was ousted and reinstated just two weeks later in a brief crisis over the role of online learning, among other things. Discussions within universities are suffused with disagreement, and deals between universities carry a tinge of competition.

The frenzy has generated an entire MOOC ecosystem. But after a year of impressive growth, many questions concerning the roles of both MOOCs and traditional brick-and-mortar campuses have yet to be answered.

Dramatis personae

MIT claimed a spot center-stage in December 2011 with the announcement of MITx, a platform for MOOCs. The pilot course, 6.002x Circuits and Electronics, opened to its 150,000 registrants in March 2012. In addition to the standard video clips, discussion boards, and text boxes for typing in numerical answers, 6.002x emulated a lab experience with its interactive circuits editor.

In May, MITx was subsumed under edX, a new non-profit founded by Harvard and MIT. Each school pledged $30 million to the initiative. “What we will discover together will help us do what we do better — to more effectively, more creatively, increase the vitality of our campuses — and at the same time increase educational opportunities for learners and teachers across the planet,” Susan J. Hockfield, then president of MIT, said at a press conference.

Two other promising MOOC platforms that emerged last year were Coursera and Udacity, start-up companies that grew out of Stanford’s online learning initiatives. Coursera is now by far the biggest of the three, with over 2 million registrants, more than 200 course offerings, and 33 university partners, including Stanford, Princeton, Caltech, and the University of Pennsylvania. The list of edX’s partners has grown more slowly to 6, and of those only Harvard, MIT, and UC Berkeley have offered MOOCs so far. These universities are each pushing out about five courses a semester. Udacity’s courses, not affiliated with any institution, stray a little further from the traditional college model in that they do not run in scheduled periodic iterations — students move at their own pace.

The students taking these classes are diverse. They live in six different continents and were born in as many different decades. They’ve logged in hoping to fulfill their curiosity, supplement their studies, pad their resumes, move forward in their professions, or just find out what all the fuss is about. They are enthusiastic, and it shows in the comments they post. They form study groups in the discussion boards or on other social media; some even meet in person. Typically, though, only 5 to 15 percent of the students that sign up for a course stick with it to the end.

The online format and grading

MOOCs seem to have converged upon a common format for the core of their content: sequences of lecture video clips, usually less than 15 minutes each, interspersed with questions that check for understanding. Students can also interact with each other in discussion boards, which are generally very active.

The harder challenge for MOOC providers is the grading. With thousands of students, the best system many MOOCs have been able to offer is some combination of multiple-choice questions and questions with numerical answers. When it comes to assessing open-ended responses, educators have had to get creative. Still within the limits of automation are computer algebra systems that can tell when two expressions are equivalent, and automatic graders that can process student code in programming classes. A few courses also have fancy interactive web tools, like 6.002x’s circuit editor.

But humans are still the most reliable graders of written assignments and other types of creative work, at least until someone who’s taken one of the several artificial intelligence MOOCs can get computers to understand essays. Some courses from Coursera are matching up students with each other’s essays to grade, with each essay’s final score determined by an algorithm that takes into account the entire network of students. Another proposed solution has been to farm out the grading to large numbers of independent evaluators on the internet, though no MOOC seems to have implemented that yet.

Perhaps it’s not a surprise that so far topics in computer science have had disproportionate representation on MOOC platforms. Some have asked whether the online format will work for humanities classes. “We cudgel our brains to think of online modules that might make sense for literary education. One of my colleagues suggested that we might teach punctuation this way,” MIT literature professor Ruth Perry wrote in the faculty newsletter.

Anant Agarwal, president of edX, told The Tech last year that he envisions edX changing education across all disciplines. The first humanities courses on edX were announced in December and are running this spring.

Certificates, cheating, and shades of free

Whatever the grading scheme, in most MOOCs, those that pass receive certificates, with the imprimatur of the sponsoring university if it’s an edX course. How potential employers, admissions committees, and university registrars appraise these certificates will likely be determined as the online education market stabilizes. Most agree that there are aspects of a residential program that just can’t be replicated online, and it’s worth noting that the edX’s university partners are not awarding formal credit for MOOC certificates, at least not yet. However, edX has maintained from the beginning that its courses match the rigor of their on-campus counterparts.

A headache that comes with certification is the possibility of cheating. One approach to prevention involves sophisticated mechanisms to detect not only which answers are whose but also which user accounts are whose. Udacity and edX have also taken a more straightforward step: offering students the option of taking proctored final exams at one of the Pearson VUE testing centers in 175 countries. Of course, this opportunity to get specially authenticated certificates comes at an extra cost — for the first round of 6.002x students, it was $95. EdX has suggested that it may charge a small fee for regular certificates in the future, too.

And that raises another question, especially pertinent for the MOOC providers that intend to profit: how does one sustain an operation that serves thousands for free? Though Coursera and Udacity together have attracted nearly $40 million from venture capitalists, the business models of Coursera and Udacity are still being worked out, according to The New York Times. Possible revenue sources include supplementary tutoring services, deals with recruiting companies, and licensing fees from colleges that want to use the online courses. For its part, edX has said that it would eventually make its software open source. All three MOOC providers have expressed a commitment to keeping their courses open to as many as possible.

And maybe that’s all that matters. “In many MOOCs it is possible to get a certificate by gaming the system and not learning very much (I seem to remember some people doing that at brick-and-mortar universities as well),” Mark L. Polak ’84 wrote in a comment to The Tech. “I say, so what! I am enrolled in the Greek Heroes class and I hope to extract incredible value from it, regardless of whether I obtain a certificate.”

Back on campus: the flipped classroom

With MOOCs seemingly giving away courses that traditional students are paying steep tuitions for, some have wondered what will become of colleges as we know them today. “Will the outcome of this be less HarvardX than ex-Harvard?” asked Harvard English Department Chair W. James Simpson at a faculty meeting, according to The Crimson. We’re reminded that the $200,000 price tag is attached to the entire package that is an undergraduate experience rather than just the lectures and exams.

MIT has emphasized that it hopes to enhance, not devalue, the education of its own students using the new technology being developed for MITx. “The only reason I am participating in this is that MITx is providing resources that will improve my residence-based course,” Michael J. Cima wrote in an email to The Tech. Cima is the instructor for 3.091x Introduction to Solid-State Chemistry, which begins its second iteration on February 5.

Taking greater pedagogical advantage of online tools is not a new idea, but 2012 saw new organized efforts from MIT in that direction. In the spring, a group of 20 MIT students in 6.002 didn’t attend lecture with the rest of their class, but instead took the online version alongside edX students (though the 20 MIT students were also provided more resources and opportunities to meet up for discussion). In the fall, ESG and Concourse 8.01 students read notes and completed exercises on the edX platform. And in November, President Reif appointed mechanical engineering professor Sanjay Sarma the first Director of Digital Learning.

The experimental versions of 6.002 and 8.01 used what’s known as the “flipped” (or “blended”) classroom, which Sarma hopes to further explore. In this model, the knowledge that’s traditionally imparted via lecture is relegated to online reading, videos, or interactive sequences, which students can go through on their own time. During class then, instructors can take full advantage of the fact that students are together in person and do something more engaging, like run a discussion or problem-solving session.

Many classes at MIT, such as those using TEAL, are already flipped to various degrees, and education researchers like those at MIT’s Teaching and Learning Laboratory (TLL) and the Research in Learning, Assessing, and Tutoring Effectively (RELATE) group are trying to find out what works best. In September, the TLL received a $200,000 grant from the NSF to examine how learning works in MOOCs and classrooms by analyzing data about student study habits and performance, which can be collected in large volumes when it comes to online classes.

An uncertain future for traditional colleges

While schools like MIT probably aren’t going away anytime soon, the future of other institutions is less clear. A September report from Moody’s Investor Service predicted that MOOCs would have “negative effects on for-profit education companies and some smaller not-for-profit colleges that may be left out of emerging high reputation online networks.”

Not being left out are Bunker Hill Community College and MassBay Community College, whose students can now take a for-credit flipped Python class with edX materials. Coursera has announced a similar collaboration with Antioch University.

There has also been speculation as to how MOOCs could affect younger students. With another two GIRs slated to be on edX, 8.02 and 7.012, the type of motivated high school students that MIT accepts might well have a significant amount of MIT’s coursework under their belts before even setting foot on campus. It’s hard to say what the effect will be in the long term, but we can start watching as soon as the MOOC-aware freshmen arrive on scene this fall.

“I am completely clueless about how edX will turn out, and I think everyone should be,” computer science professor Patrick Henry Winston wrote in an email to The Tech. “We are in a highly turbulent period where today’s great idea will be tomorrow’s dinosaur. The only thing that is certain is that we have to put our visionaries to work, we have to try all manner of experiments, and we have to manage our way through, as no one has a good enough crystal ball to predict how the world of education will look in a decade.”