edX: The New Classroom?

edX is an innovation in MOOCs which offers the chance for online students to receive credit for the coursework they complete via massive online distance learning.

MIT announced its new initiative MITx, an extension of edX. MITx is based on   MIT Open Courseware (OWC), discussed in my blog post here. Over 100,000 people have used the open courseware materials posted in OWC, and now MIT is giving its online students a way to earn credit for their work. Interestingly, there is no “admissions” process for any of the courses. The material is distributed openly and freely to any user with access to the internet. Students who wish to receive credit for learning the material can do so for a “small fee.”

The logistics for this new distribution technique raises a lot of questions:

  • Will all students take exams and do homework, or just the students who pay for certification?
  • Will students have access to instructors or TAs? Are online students going to be graded automatically?
  • Will MIT residential students still find attending class necessary, or will they prefer the online delivery?
  • Will the credits that students earn carry the weight of a college degree?
  • Do online courses from MIT have the same name-brand quality as residential classes?

Is the edX initiative going to be the new mode of delivery for courses?

In my personal opinion: no. There are components of a physical classroom (which cannot be easily replicated in online environments) which are essential to a good education:

  1. Interaction with experts (in the form of professors and TA’s) gives students a role model, a goal to work toward.
  2. Discussion in the classroom environment develops a learning community which challenges students to explain and justify their opinions.
  3. Assessments in a classroom are used to find student weaknesses, so that a professor can target the common weaknesses in a class with future curriculum. The scale of MOOCs cannot allow a single professor to evaluate all of her students needs, let alone accommodate all of them.
  4. Online content generally is not dynamic. It is a one-size-fits-all curriculum.

One thing is clear to me: this push for online education just reaffirms my interest in developing methods for delivering course materials in IPython Notebooks (see this example of an interactive python textbook).

I want to close with a Woodie Flowers quote which reveals how MOOCs and edX may be pushing educational technology too far, steamrolling the highly valuable interpersonal aspects of the physical classroom:

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.

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