In education innovation, MOOCS are only the beginning


Carol Worthman, left, a professor of anthropology at Emory's Laboratory for Comparative Human Biology, helps Tibetan Buddhist monks at a classroom of an educational complex in Sarah, India on June 7, 2012. (Altaf Qadri/AP)
Vivek Wadhwa
Contributor, Innovations March 29, 2013

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been touted by some as the breakthrough that will transform education. Top universities such as MIT, Harvard, and the University of California at Berkeley are scrambling to make their lectures available online. Gov. Jerry Brown (D-Calif.) described one such program — a trial effort between online course platform Udacity and San Jose State University — as being “about our society, our future and how we can all improve our skills, how we can exercise our imagination.”

Brown is right, but today’s online courses are just a baby step forward on education’s path to transformation, particularly early childhood education. Khan Academy founder Salman Khan will likely be seen in the near future as the modern-day equivalent of the radio star who first appeared on television, microphone in hand.

Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, director of research at Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke, and distinguished fellow at Singularity University. His past appointments include Harvard Law School, University of California Berkeley, and Emory University. View Archive

Early education used to be delivered on a one-to-one basis. The craftsman passed down what he knew to the apprentice and parents imparted knowledge to their children. Then came the one-to-many model, with classrooms and eventually textbooks to facilitate learning via standardized lessons. The video-based learning of MOOCs is another incarnation of this one-to-many model, offering a window into the otherwise traditional classroom.

Social networking is allowing for some of the more profound changes in modern education, offering a viable many-to-many model. MOOC platforms such as Udacity, Udemy, and Open Study are beginning to use Facebook-like applications to enable students to share ideas and coach one another. These applications allow students to rank online content and discuss what they learned. Gooru provides a search engine to help find pieces of knowledge and then assemble them into comprehensive lessons. Think of it as crowdsourcing the course-creation process. The collective knowledge of millions could lead to dramatic improvements in the quality of online education while growing the volume of courses exponentially.

But all of this is still just the beginning of the education revolution. We are headed back to the one-to-one model with instruction geared towards the individual rather than the group.

Adaptive learning platforms, such as the one Knewton is developing, start by understanding a student’s strengths and weaknesses and then suggest an appropriate learning path. These keep improving their recommendation engines by keeping track of what videos students with different backgrounds and strengths watch and how they perform on tests.

There are thousands of apps that teach subjects such as history, geography, music, mathematics, and science. Adaptive technologies stand to make these standalone apps more effective and personalized. One app that I tested on the Aakash tablet is by a company with offices in the U.S. and India called Mango Learning. It teaches students math through games, which grow more challenging at each level. If the child doesn’t understand fractions the way they are taught in, say, India, the app allows the child to switch to a Chinese teaching method.

But is there a method of detecting whether a student has learned anything? Quizzes and tests are imperfect measures. Enter, sensor-based technology, which could detect the interest, learning, and emotion of the student.

For example, NeuroSky markets a headset called MindWave that the company says measures brainwave signals and transmits them via Bluetooth to a mobile device. The $99 device, according to the company, detects the attention level of students as they learn mathematics, science, or any other pattern-recognition disciplines. Affectiva is developing a biosensor bracelet called Q Sensor to measure electrodermal activity, which changes based on one’s emotional state. Ideally, the sensor would detect when a student is anxious, bored or excited.

Now, imagine the digital tutor of the future. If a child likes reading books, it teaches mathematics and science in a traditional way. If that doesn’t work, the tutor tries videos. If that’s too boring, it switches to games or puzzles. The digital tutor takes the student into holographic simulations to teach history, culture, and geography. It teaches art and music through collaboration. The tutor, via sensor data, knows what the child has learned and the time of day when he or she learns the most. It asks experts from all around the world the questions it can’t answer. It tells the parents how the child is doing whenever they want to know. It becomes the child’s trusted guide — a teacher tailor-made to fit them.

Washington Post Co. Chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham is a member of Facebook’s board of directors.

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