The rise in online universities, making education borderless

By Anant Agarwal  /  The Observer, LONDON

Mon, Jun 17, 2013 - Page 9

The past few centuries have witnessed revolutions in virtually every area of our world — health, transport, communications and genomics, to name but a few — but not in education. Until now, that is, with the advent of massive open online courses (MOOC).

MOOCs are transforming education in both quality and scale. As president of edX, the only non-profit MOOC provider, I have the privilege of being part of this revolution. It is the most exciting time in education in decades.

One way MOOCs have changed education is by increasing access. MOOCs make education borderless, gender-blind, race-blind, class-blind and bank account-blind. Up to now, quality education — and in some cases, any higher education at all — has been the privilege of the few. MOOCs have changed that. Anyone with an Internet connection and the will to learn can have access to education. We hear from thousands of students, many in under-served, developing countries, about how grateful they are for this education.

MOOCs are also improving the quality of education. Online learning promotes active learning, where the learner watches videos and engages in interactive exercises. At edX, our team has focused on capturing this element of online learning through an innovative user interface. MOOCs and online learning also enable instant feedback through automatically graded exercises, self-paced learning through the ability to pause or rewind videos, peer learning through online discussion forums and the application of gaming mechanisms to virtual laboratories.

However, why is this transformation happening now? A confluence of factors has contributed to a perfect storm for learning. While, more than a decade ago at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Eric Grimson and Tomas Lozano-Perez experimented with “interleaved” videos and online exercises in a flipped class model — in which the lecture becomes homework and class time is for practice — it took video and content distribution networks, cloud computing and social networking to produce the right environment to support the huge worldwide enrolments we see in MOOCs.

The old ways of funneling a small number of privileged or lucky students into traditional higher education will go. MOOCs are democratizing education. We have seen teenagers who lacked top educational pedigrees obtain perfect scores in demanding online courses. Some are now getting the opportunity to pursue higher education. Through MOOCs, many more talented people in the world can take part in great learning.

I do not believe online education can replace a college experience, but the days of the old ways of teaching are numbered. Students have always been critical of large lecture halls where they are talked at, and declining lecture attendance is the result. However, today we see that there is deep educational value in interactive learning, both online and in the classroom.

Colleges and universities are beginning to use MOOCs to make blended courses where online videos replace lectures, and class time is spent interacting with the professor, teaching staff and other students. Blended courses can produce good results. Last autumn, San Jose State University used course material from edX. The percentage of students required to retake the course dropped from 41 percent to 9 percent.

So how many people are we reaching? We were overwhelmed by the response to our pilot course in early last year on circuits and electronics — 155,000 students from 162 countries signed up. This sent a clear signal that the world was ready for online education and hungry for knowledge. We now have 1 million students from 192 countries. Delivering knowledge to otherwise excluded populations is just part of what MOOC providers do to change education. Research is another.

EdX and its partner universities are using the data we collect throughout a class to research how students learn most effectively, and then apply that knowledge to both online learning and traditional on-campus teaching. At MIT and Harvard, researchers David Pritchard, Lori Breslow and Andrew Ho have been studying how people learn. Pritchard computes that the data from the first prototype course alone — one my colleagues and I taught on circuits and electronics — is staggering and would fill 110,000 books. We recorded every click. All 230 million of them.

Using the data we gathered, we found that more than half of our students in the circuits and electronics class started working on their homework before watching video lectures. It appears that students get more excited about learning when they try to puzzle out a problem. In such classes, we are now looking at whether professors should assign homework before the lecture, instead of after.

Another way technology has driven these revolutionary changes in education is through using artificial intelligence to help teachers effectively assess students’ work. Last month, we unveiled our experimental assessment tool, which combines artificial intelligence assessment, peer assessment and self-assessment, to provide professors with the tools to grade open-ended questions in a massively scaled environment. We also piloted cohort technology on our platform, which is a way for instructors to divide the large discussion forums into smaller, more intimate sub-groups.

We are part of a movement that seeks to change the face of education. In April, we announced that our entire learning platform would be released as an open source on June 1, and that Stanford University, along with Berkeley, MIT, Harvard and others, would start collaborating with us to continue to improve the platform.

We are looking forward to universities and developers everywhere contributing to and enhancing the platform that powers our edX courses. If you are interested you can access our source code here: