MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXVI No. 5
May / June 2014
A Letter to the Class of 2014
Faculty Establish Campus
Planning Committee
Remarks Occasioned by the Draft Report of the MITx Subcommittee of the FPC
Governance Highlights: Year in Review
OCW Educator: Sharing the "How" as well as the "What" of MIT Education
What's Old is New: Learning from the Past
Frank P. Davidson
The Mens' Kick Line
Part of MIT Strong!
from the 2014 Senior Survey
from the 2014 Senior Survey
Printable Version

Remarks Occasioned by the Draft Report of the
MITx Subcommittee of the FPC

Larry Bucciarelli

The Draft Report of the MITx Subcommittee of the Faculty Policy Committee (FPC) considered the current ambiguities and uncertainties in assigning credit and ensuring academic integrity when relying on online content delivered and engaged via the edX platform. It sanctions the “...award of transfer credit for edX study within the framework of the current transfer credit system...” and recommends examination or other means appropriate to the discipline, to “test student proficiency as currently used for advanced standing subjects.” But there are issues:

“We anticipate the most likely early candidates for credit are subjects that might serve to fulfill Science GIRs and/or general engineering subjects. This would require careful consideration, however, because many of the online subjects may not cover as much material as the on-campus MIT Science GIRs, or cover the material with equally demanding difficulty, or require additional hands-on skills that come with class demonstrations or laboratory modules. We are also conscious that certain curricula must meet external criteria, such as those determined by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), and the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).”

There are two different ways in which online subject content, available via the edX platform, might be used and, if done so successfully, might be a source of transfer credit: One way is by an individual with no opportunity for exchange with a teacher. The other way is by members of a group of like-minded students guided by a teacher. The former might be called “edX in isolation”; the latter, “edX in community.”

As a vehicle for illustration of use of edX in community, consider how the subject matter of MIT’s math and science GIRs, usually taken the first year, if made available online to high school teachers of Advanced Placement courses in these subjects, as modules or as MOOCs, might enhance their teaching and bring the level of these courses up to MIT standards.

MIT could take a leading role in such an effort – one that, to ensure quality in the definition and development of content at the appropriate level and effective use of this content, would include the participation of those who teach the Advanced Placement courses. Evidently, this is already underway: edX has partnered with Davidson College to develop “lessons”, “modules” – the latter “. . . on the trickiest concepts in each subject” – in Advanced Placement courses in calculus, physics, and macroeconomics. Faculty at Davidson are working with teachers from the nearby Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools in this effort.

But MIT could do more using resources only available here. Faculty responsible for the relevant GIR first-year subjects, together with edX staff, could conduct summer workshops to prepare teachers of the AP courses in the nuances of content, show how they can adapt modes of delivery as well as specific material, e.g., exercises, texts, to their local needs – all the while maintaining standards that would enable the award of MIT credit.

Means would need to be developed to assess the credit-worthiness of these edX, online enhanced AP/GIR courses. This should not be difficult if a sufficient number of high schools with a sufficient number of students relied on the online content developed specifically for their use in their Advanced Placement courses in mathematics and science. If proven their worth, MIT might eventually consider granting transfer credit to all students who successfully complete the subject prior to arriving on campus; further examination may not be required.

Given this picture, how might such online enhanced Advanced Placement courses stand up to the subcommittee’s critique and recommendations for granting transfer credit to students who successfully complete such subjects?

“. . . the online subjects may not cover as much material as the on-campus MIT Science GIRs, or cover the material with equally demanding difficulty, or require additional hands-on skills that come with class demonstrations or laboratory modules. We are also conscious that certain curricula must meet external criteria, such as those determined by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), and the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).”

Concerning may not cover as much material as the on-campus MIT Science GIRs: More needs to be said here. If definition of coverage is based solely on the reading of a syllabus, that will not suffice. It is not enough to look at a list of topics of an AP course to see what is “covered” and compare that with what is similarly covered in the corresponding MIT subject. The important thing to compare is what the students actually learn, whether what they have learned will suffice as preparation for subsequent studies, and whether what they have not learned will seriously hamper their advancement. This cannot be deduced from what’s printed on a syllabus; an evaluation of students subsequent to their completion of the online enhanced, high school Advanced Placement courses would need to be conducted.

In general, the idea of judging the worth of a subject in terms of quantity, e.g., number and scope of topics appearing on a syllabus, as if knowledge were some kind of material substance, is suspect and should be avoided. Talk of “what can we leave out, what of this to put in” usually brings any thoughtful attempts at curriculum reform to a premature end.

Consider, too, that an online subject may include material not covered in the GIR – an option that ought to remain open to the teacher of the AP course. Such may prove just as, or more, important to the student when viewed as a prerequisite for subsequent subjects in his or her major.

Concerning equally demanding difficulty: Again, this requires elaboration. “Difficulty” in itself is no measure of the quality of a course or equivalence for granting transfer credit. What ought to be of concern is whether the AP course measures up to the level of sophistication, depth, and fundamental understanding of the corresponding MIT subject. The importance of deducing explanation of phenomena from root concepts and principles via mathematically empowered analysis appropriate to the task and of the power of such understanding in problem solving is a hallmark of the GIRs. Internalizing this way of thinking presents a challenge to students who come to the Institute having learned the math and science as a collection of formulae to be applied through pattern matching and/or textbook lookup. But there is no reason why an online enhanced AP course can’t prepare the student otherwise if the online content is designed to prepare students in the MIT way and teachers likewise are schooled in the fundamental nature of the material as well as in the use of the edX platform.

Concerning: additional hands-on skills that come with class demonstrations or laboratory modules: This concern is more difficult to address. Clearly, online content can’t be considered “hands on,” at least if we require the manipulation of material stuff for a task to be considered such. Much can be done with digital simulations and laboratory preparatory videos, but building and instrumenting and getting the bugs out of a laboratory experiment or a design studio prototype before testing requires students to get up from the couch and confront hardware. A video of a class demonstration might serve as well as being there and observing from 10 rows back in a lecture hall, but laboratory modules need students up close and active. In a summer session devoted to AP teacher training, desktop experiments, of the sort used for the past 12 years in 8.01 and 8.02 (TEAL) – where students work together in small groups – would be made available for use and replication.

Finally, regarding certain curricula must meet external criteria, such as those determined by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology: The possibility of awarding credit for MIT’s first-year, GIRs in math and science if students have successfully completed the online enhanced Advanced Placement courses as described herein should not present a problem for ABET. The accrediting agency’s criteria are expressed in terms of a list of 11 (“a through k”) student outcomes and three general statements concerning curriculum content. The first of the three curriculum requirements states that:

“(a) one year of a combination of college level mathematics and basic sciences (some with experimental experience) appropriate to the discipline. Basic sciences are defined as biological, chemical, and physical sciences.”

Whether a student advance places the first-year GIRs prior to arriving at MIT or completes these subjects in residence is not an issue if ABET, as it is the case now, allows MIT to grant advanced placement credit for a course taken in high school. I see no reason why this would restrict the Institute from continuing to do so.

The first of the “a through k” student outcomes appears relevant:

“(a) an ability to apply knowledge of mathematics, science, and engineering.”

But note that this says nothing about where the student must learn the mathematics and science (and engineering) or what courses he or she must complete in these areas. Rather it requires that the student upon graduation must show the ability to apply knowledge learned in these domains. Where the student, for example in engineering, develops this competence will most likely be in the requirements of the major.

All in all, if the enhancement of high school Advanced Placement courses in mathematics and science were to be pursued as recommended herein, it’s likely that students would be just as well, if not better, prepared for their subsequent studies once in residence at MIT.

There are, however, features of the first-year GIR experience that we have overlooked – features noted in the subcommittee’s report:

“Importantly, the classroom experience constitutes a shared experience and thus serves as a community building process. In this sense, the GIRs are not just for subject matter mastery but also play a fundamental role in community building and developing a variety of social, listening, and observational skills. In addition, the GIRs serve as a common ground of student engagement, through which they build a shared sense of participation and experience. How do we replace these common experiences.”

The first-year experience does, for most, mean community – a space for developing social, listening, and observational skills where students do indeed build a shared sense of participation and experience. But what is the nature of this experience, what skills are developed?

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For many students, first year at MIT is like a “boot camp” – two semesters of intermittent stress, of problem sets that are impossible to complete in the time allowed, quizzes written to challenge the brightest in the class and classmates who, at least at first, all seem to be smarter than you are. So students do learn but what they learn, outside of what’s listed on the syllabus, is which assignments can be neglected or put off beyond their due date, when one can safely skip lecture, or how to appeal for a change in recitation section assignment, etc. This is not to devalue this kind of learning; it is essential that students learn to set priorities, that they can’t possibly do all that faculty “require,” and these skills will prove valuable at work, after graduation, as well as in their subsequent course work at MIT.

So this boot camp aura does have a certain value in introducing students to the ethos of the place. But is it a good thing, a good introduction, the way we want to lead our students on? It sustains most all, enables their survival under pressure, but it remains an open question whether it is a necessary experience, prerequisite to engaging the subjects of study in one’s chosen major, e.g., engineering.

* * * * *

Turning to the possibility of awarding transfer credit for the online edX in isolation experience: In addressing this concern, we need to distinguish between a course in the humanities and a technical subject with wholly instrumental objectives, taught in a traditional way.

William Bowen, former president of Princeton, found the latter well suited for online delivery:

“Our study used one sophisticated method of teaching a beginning course in a field, statistics, extremely well-suited to adaptive learning (machine guided learning). . . .”

But for a humanities subject . . .

“It is far from obvious that the same pedagogy will work anything like as well in teaching subjects such as literature and international affairs. Face-to-face learning in many subjects and many settings will continue to persist for two very good reasons.

“First, such teaching makes a great deal of educational sense, a priori, when we are trying to teach not only well-known concepts . . . but also nuanced notions such as: how to frame questions in value-laden subjects, how to distinguish evidence from opinion, how to take account of different points of view, how to formulate one’s own position on complex questions, how to express one’s self verbally and in writing, how to engage with others as a member of an intellectual community, and even how to approach an understanding of ‘life lessons.’ Most fundamentally, we want to engender in students the excitement associated with encountering a new idea.”

A statistic course may be well suited for study in isolation but this depends upon the conduct of the course and the objectives of faculty. If student outcomes are restricted to those that speak of mastery of the instrumental content alone, the desired student outcomes might be achieved, indeed might best be achieved, via working with edX in isolation. The medium, the venue for learning of a course where tight logic and its symbolic expression is key to learning is the computing and information technology itself. Exercises are worked out online; search for help done online; solutions to exercises posted and evaluated online.

What is absent from the student experience is any need to consult, talk, or negotiate face-to-face with staff and/or one’s peers. This is not to say that face-to-face discussion and exchange is not valued by faculty and students in the actual conduct of the residential course. It does strongly suggest that such may not be considered an essential condition for learning. It all depends on the objectives of faculty in charge, e.g, if teamwork is an objective, then edX in isolation may not suffice.

Whether edX in isolation is as good (or even better) a way to learn a technical subject compared to taking the same subject in a traditional residential setting is a question that, again, can be tested. But it’s not inconceivable that edX in isolation would prove its worth, even superiority – especially if the residential course discounts the value of face-to-face interaction. Here lies what might be called a fatal attraction of the MOOC.

* * * * *

“This subcommittee feels very strongly that there is incomparable value in student-faculty engagement and is concerned that MITx will be used as a substitute for physical co-presence, active intellectual and critical discourse together among students and faculty.”

The subcommittee’s articulation of (some of) the values of face-to-face engagement is spot on. Although the discussion forum of a MOOC tries to replicate classroom discussion, it is, at best, but an impoverished imitation. Echoing the report: The residential student’s learning experiences may include project-based learning, collaborative design tasks, public service, research in the lab of a professor. Residential students, at least at a place like MIT, are offered substantial advising, And we should not ignore the connections students make with their peers, social as well as intellectual, as members of a community, communities of different scale and scope – the whole university at an athletic event; one’s immediate classmates surviving the boot camp of first-year physics; denizens of a dorm or independent living group collectively complaining about the food. All of these experiences – experiences that contribute to student social and intellectual advancement – are missing from online learning, engaging edX in isolation.

I endorse the subcommittee’s encouragement of faculty.

“. . . to adapt the MITx platform to be incorporated in residential subjects, enhancing the value of co-present time.... the interactions with faculty should be of high quality, ... smaller classes promote better faculty-student interaction. To this end, we are interested in the possibility of online technology to enable faculty to restructure the delivery of materials, and to reconceive and coordinate faculty-student, face-to-face interactions.”

. . . and conclude with a question:

If lectures, texts, exercises and their grading, and discussion can all be done online, and the students do take on the responsibility to really dig in and engage the materials online, what’s left to do in the classroom? How to “. . . reconceive and coordinate faculty-student, face-to-face interactions?”

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