MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXV No. 1
September / October 2012
I. Graduate Student Housing Difficulties
II. Response to MIT 2030 Concerns
III. edX Front and Center
IV. 25th Anniversary of the FNL
edX: Hostile Takeover or Helping Hand?
Comings and Goings
Concerns Over Affordability
of On-Campus Housing
New Strategic Directions for DUE
From Imagination to Impact: Empowering Graduate Students to Create the Future
Survey Says: Faculty Happy But Stressed
Teaching this fall? You should know . . .
Alumni Association Seeks Traveling Faculty
Nominate a Colleague for the MacVicar Faculty Fellows Program
Request for Preliminary Proposals for Innovative Curricular Projects
Thanks and some reflections
From the 2008 and 2012 Faculty Survey
Printable Version

edX: Hostile Takeover or Helping Hand?

Woodie Flowers

In this Newsletter last January, I speculated that we had stumbled in our effort to help education take advantage of digital technologies. OCW (OpenCourseWare) offers users a chance to sort through an unfiltered and unorganized pile of stuff we generated while doing what we do. The missed opportunity, I argued, involved recognition that education and training are different and that training could be dramatically improved through use of well structured, high quality modules that would help students train themself so person-to-person time could be used for education. Essentially the strategy would outsource training and nonjudgmental grading to digital systems, and thereby free instructors to serve as mentors.

Such a system could serve K-death and be versatile in the extreme. It could have direct dramatic positive influence on MIT residential programs and leverage the thousands of dedicated teachers who need help.

I repeat here a version of those arguments and a plea that more of us get involved in making sure that MIT’s education strategy is carefully crafted and not quickly copied from others. Risking our reputation and $30,000,000 is a big deal. To date, we have partnered with two other prestigious institutions. That is more reason to be careful.
In edX’s MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), I believe we have a product without a strategy. We should design products that help us improve while also helping schools everywhere. MOOCs do neither.

MOOCs replace complete courses. They remove important options from competent faculties we should help. MOOCs again put MIT’s brand equity at risk by chasing a sweet-sounding but badly flawed dream of “free education.” Free education is nonsense! Good education is strongly linked to personal interaction and that will never be free. Improved education is a far more sensible goal.

edX should not be a me-too copy of Coursera and/or Udacity. They were first and had momentum before we started. As a source of MOOCs, edX is lagging in overall participation. We may be the slow starter in a race that has no winners.

For good reasons, a MOOC is viewed as a hostile takeover of a course. Since the MITx announcement, I have given presentations on education reform in Spain, Australia, and the U.S. A paraphrased reaction I have heard from other faculties is, “Those big-endowment elitists are trying to undermine our institution.” The MOOC model is an arrogant statement about what a course should be. Educators do not react favorably to being taken out of that decision process and potentially out of the picture altogether.

Even for ad hoc learning and continuing education, a whole course is an oversize bite that is not likely to fit users’ needs. In very few instances will the starting point, coverage, and end point designed for MIT be right for other schools.

I believe MOOCs are a fad. Right now, their purveyors are preoccupied by a race to volume.

Coursera’s home page banner features an enrollment counter that recently passed one million. (Current completion rates for MOOCs is about 10%.) MOOCs, however, lack versatility and are alien to the existing infrastructure. While they may work well in the “training” part of highly codified subjects, their potential contribution to education on the whole is quite limited. In my opinion, they will do little to help MIT improve our own educational productivity.

While I am enthusiastic about reducing costs, improving efficiency, and thinning the ranks of ineffective educators, I believe leading institutions should focus on helping the good teachers without destabilizing the system.

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Think about the end game of successful MOOC competition among Coursera, Udacity, and edX. Will we have succeeded if, for a degree, students everywhere pick one of these three for each course until they graduate? Should those students ever meet a professor or visit a campus? Or maybe, to preserve the variety now available, we would have many MOOCs. (They would have to become Not-So-MOOCs.) How many versions of 6.002x would the English-speaking world need? Would we have hundreds of copycat MOOC players or would we decay into oligarchies where SuperMOOCs reign? Since the MOOC model would follow a scripted lecture, why would professors be the presenters? Would it not make sense to recruit Morgan Freeman or Katy Perry to deliver the monster MOOC? The producers could replace PowerPoint slides and demonstrations with movie-quality special effects. Would budget-strapped community colleges just go away? I think we should be careful about joining a movement that may produce chaos rather than improve education.

Collections of inexpensive “course badges” could undermine the value of a diploma and society would realize too late that critical thinking, creativity, and professionalism are not easily adopted or evaluated via a screen. Imagine what state legislatures might do to their state’s college budgets. What would happen to the symbiotic relationship between education and research?

There are many nondestructive and exciting paths that take advantage of digital technology. Let’s pick one of those. For example, we could learn from history. Using textbooks for a few centuries has taught us a lot. They keep the local instructor in the educational process. I believe that “new media texts” are a much better model for helping education. One of the “sweet spots” includes materials that are beautifully produced, feedback enabled, and modular. Think of short, elegant textbook chapters that include automatic homework and quiz grading coupled to analytical data tools. Such a format could continuously improve and morph with the digital world. Successful modules would be the product of a coordinated effort so that they embody a logical progression and use consistent nomenclature.

Leadership in organizing those bite-size building blocks could be an important service from a leading educational institution like MIT. Such modules would provide freedom to customize courses and free faculty to use “lecture” time for more inspirational and experiential purposes. (MIT would have a strong comparative advantage given our Mens et Manus tradition.) A successful system would allow others to add “apps” or plugins. Offloading training time to students might allow university residence time to be reduced without harming the overall efficacy of a degree.

Sustainability is essential. Especially for commodity subjects, elegant and connected digital texts would easily justify usage fees and probably be seen as a blessing and a bargain. For those who could not afford fees, use could be free since the marginal cost of additional users would be very low. You do not have to be an Ayn Rand disciple to see that rewarding those who create materials that support education is good. Without royalty payments, would we have great textbooks?

My presentation in Australia was sponsored by Smart Sparrow, a company partially funded by The University of New South Wales. It offers an educational software system derived from one of their doctoral theses. Smart Sparrow’s three principles are: Promote Learning by Doing, Be Intelligent and Adaptive, and Empower the Teacher. Maybe those ideas offer a good role model for us.

MOOCs are about telepresence. However, real presence is essential. Imagine a letter of recommendation written by a faculty member in charge of a MOOC: “Although I have never met Jane Doe, I think she would be a great contributor to your research program/company. In the on-line chat rooms that support my course, she often rose to the top of the answer-quality index. Her answers to other students’ questions were clear and concise. . . .” I would not write nor trust a letter like that.

Direct human interaction is complex. Experimental psychologists are teaching us volumes about the importance of non-verbal communications. Most of our brain activity is devoted to processes we do not even notice. Read Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow and Leonard Mlodinow’s Subliminal. Both books are rich with evidence that we are unlikely to learn to know students or truly educate them without meeting them. Without our being with them, students can learn only a low-bandwidth version of us and of their classmates.

MOOCs are not likely to lead MIT to understand which parts of education require time together. I believe the answer to that question is important and answering it should be a central part of our strategy. It is more important than software development.

I hope it is not too late to reboot or at least redirect.

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