EdX turns 1: Now what?


Video editor Chris Shafer right, edits a lecture from Professor Eric Lander's course titled "Introduction to Biology: The Secret of Life" at EdX's Kendall Square offices at MIT campus. Post-production assistant David Nevins is at left. (Josh Reynolds for The Washington Post)
May 2, 2013

Across the country, thousands of college biology instructors give lectures every year on the fundamental biochemical process of breaking down sugar, known as glycolysis.

Are all those lectures necessary? Might a few suffice?

How about one from Eric S. Lander?

Lander is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a scientific adviser to President Obama. He was a leader in the Human Genome Project. His 54-minute discourse on glycolysis is on video, available for free, as part of a course called “Introduction to Biology — The Secret of Life” on the Web site edX.

The Post took another look this week at edX and the movement toward massive open online courses, or MOOCs, in this article from Cambridge, Mass., which explored debate over the phenomenon as it enters its second year.

To be clear, Lander himself does not suggest that his videos should replace what biology faculty do from day to day. But MOOCs such as his might offer some professors elsewhere a chance to spend less time preparing and delivering lectures and more time working hands-on with students.

“Everything in education should be about the value that can be added by having the real teacher there,” Lander said in an interview. “The mistake is the idea that this [MOOC] replaces the teacher. That’s crazy.”

Like many in the MOOC movement, Lander said he is excited to try something new. “I’m a scientist. We’re about experiments. We should embrace this idea. Think differently. Throw things up in the air and see what happens.”

He added: “I expect the first people taking MOOCs are going to be teaching us enormously about what works.”

His MOOC, which started March 5, had more than 36,000 registered students as of a few weeks ago.

***

Here is more from the notebooks that didn’t make the story but seems too interesting to leave unpublished.

On edX:

The start-up, a year old as of Thursday, conveys a casual/hectic vibe in its office suite in Cambridge.

Catered lunch and granola bars sustain the 20- and 30-somethings who work long hours building and servicing the Web platform. (One spring day there is Quiche Lorraine, tortellini and apple-cranberry salad.) For diversion, there is a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of polar bears in progress on a table near the break room.

A monitor hanging from the ceiling delivers real-time metrics on usage of the Web site. Sheets of paper posted on a wall seem to indicate the number of certificates earned by students who had passed edX courses: 31,291 as of late March.

EdX spokesman Dan O’Connell later said that that total was based on incomplete data. The sheets have been taken down. The Web site, which now counts 890,000 unique users, does not have a full tally of MOOC students who have earned certificates, he said.

Anant Agarwal, the perpetually kinetic president of edX who doubles as a professor of electrical engineering at MIT, said that edX is his sixth start-up. The other five were for profit. This one is not. EdX was founded by Harvard and MIT with $60 million in venture funding. Its mantra, he said, is quality over quantity.

The site boasts sophisticated tools such as a molecular manipulator, a circuit simulator and an interactive periodic table. It is testing software that can score written answers to open-ended questions. “We can experiment with things that cannot be done in a real classroom,” Agarwal said.

He said edX seeks not to maximize revenue but to become self-sustaining. “There are a number of business opportunities knocking on our door, and we’re not pursuing those aggressively,” Agarwal said. “Which would be unthinkable in a [for-profit] start-up.”

There is a clear contrast in this regard with Coursera, a for-profit MOOC platform that is the market leader.

Agarwal, who taught an early MOOC himself on circuits and electronics that had more than 100,000 online students, said he had a “big epiphany” one day as he surveyed questions posed on a discussion board. It turned out that the professor didn’t need to answer the questions.

“I watched, fascinated, as the students were going back and forth,” Agarwal said. “All I had to do was to go in and anoint one of the responses as a good answer. These discussion forums really work.”

***

On HarvardX:

Robert A. Lue is a Harvard biologist who is faculty director of university’s MOOC-producing engine. It’s called HarvardX.

(Side note: The X motif started with MITx, which was begun in late 2011 as the precursor to edX. Why X? We haven’t entirely figured that out. But it connotes novelty and experimentation.)

Lue has been drumming up support from faculty and answering questions in numerous forums. He said this at one of them that was recorded on video:

“There is a commitment that the face of HarvardX should represent the fields, the schools, the intellectual priorities, the habits of mind, the modes of pedagogy and the audiences that are priorities for all of Harvard’s schools and departments.

“So sometimes folks ask, for example, ‘Well, is it just about computer science and engineering?’ Absolutely not. HarvardX is Harvard. It is all of Harvard across all of its schools.”

In an interview, Lue added: “People ask me, ‘Why is Harvard doing this now? Is it just because you’re seeing this big trend and you’re following it?’ ”

His answer: “No. Because there’s a remarkable convergence of change. We need to rethink how we teach.”

He said faculty enthusiasm for talking about teaching and learning is enormous. “I’ve been at Harvard 23 years,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Will HarvardX MOOCs, offered for free, cheapen the brand of one of the world’s most prestigious universities?

“No,” Lue replied. “At every meeting I’m asked this. Emphatically no. In fact, by broadening Harvard’s reach and transforming what we do on campus — how can it not strengthen us?”

HarvardX and others involved in edX say their MOOCs are complex and labor-intensive. EdX has estimated a production expense in some cases of about $250,000 per MOOC. The total can vary. But educators agree it is not cheap.

“It’s a lot more work to produce one of these courses than most people think,” said Harvard Provost Alan M. Garber.

***

On MITx

It’s worth noting that MIT started a precursor of sorts to the MOOC. It's called Open Courseware, and it is wildly popular. Since 2002, MIT has posted published materials for 2,150 of its courses on this site. All are available for free, serving a huge international audience of educators and students.

They’re not designed to be MOOCs. But self-starters can use them for almost the same purpose.

One MITx course to keep an eye on is Mechanics ReView, a physics MOOC just posted on edX. MIT officials say it has extremely well-developed, pre-vetted questions — refined over a period of years — to help students master what can be tough material.

“We’ve been able to measure the difference this approach makes,” MIT Professor David Prichard, who developed the course, said in a statement. “We can see that the students move from a focus on formulas to a focus on underlying concepts, and develop better strategies for solving problems. And this is a skill that leads to significantly better performance in their next physics course.”

***

On GeorgetownX

There are 10 other partners in the edX project. One is Georgetown University, which joined in December. So far Georgetown has not unveiled any MOOCs.

But spokeswoman Rachel Pugh said: “Georgetown is expected to launch its first edX courses in the coming days. Georgetown is very purposefully taking an interdisciplinary approach to developing courses that examine global challenges on topics including bioethics, globalization, terrorism, genomics, personal medicine, human dignity and human rights.”

***

And on others:

Francisco G. Cigarroa, chancellor of the University of Texas system, dropped by The Post not long ago.

Four UT MOOCs are now listed on edX: Ideas of the 20th Century, Energy 101, Age of Globalization, and Take your Medicine — the Impact of Drug development.

“We want these courses to be best in class,” Cigarroa said. “If it’s going to have UT’s name on it, we want these courses to be superb.”

He added: “We have a lot of content we can offer. EdX needs us as much as we need them. In fact, we’re going to push edX a little bit.”

The UT system is working on a way for students enrolled in its universities to take the MOOCs for credit.

UT system officials note that terms of their agreement with edX is being renegotiated. Originally the system was to contribute $10 million to edX: $5 million to help develop the platform and up to $5 million to develop courses. UT officials discovered that they could develop the courses at lower cost themselves.

Armando Fox, a computer scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, who is also involved in the edX project, said terms of UC-Berkeley’s agreement with edX are not finalized. He said the university has contributed significantly to the technical development of the platform, including the discussion boards. “We’ve put in a fair amount of blood, toil, tears and sweat,” he said.

Soon, Fox predicted, many or even most courses on the UC-Berkeley campus will have elements of online learning built into them. “It’s already changing Berkeley,” Fox said.

Nick Anderson covers higher education for The Washington Post. He has been a writer and editor at The Post since 2005.
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