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Anant Agarwal Answers Your Questions About edX and the Future of Education 20

Posted by samzenpus
from the and-the-answer-is dept.
A few weeks ago you had the chance to ask the President of edX, Anant Agarwal, about the future of education and the growth of MOOCs. Below you'll find his answers to your questions.
Could someone set up an archive site ?
by Taco Cowboy

The other day I was looking up an open course offered by Harvard that I had meant to try my hands on for the past few years (I know, I know, I procrastinated). I googled it up and clicked on the link - and long and behold, the Harvard server told me that the course had been deleted, due to some "incompatibility" of the video format and their new hardware, or something like that. I did not take that course. I have no idea if it was good or not. What if it was an excellent course ? Now that that particular course is gone (a few lessons still can still be had on youtube), the opportunity cost for many people does accumulate. If there was only an archive site for all the open-courses, wouldn't that be great ?

Agarwal: I know, why do today what you can put off till tomorrow :-) Seriously, a large number of our learners like you just want to audit a course and prefer it to be always available. For that reason, a significant number of our previous courses are indeed offered as "past courses" or "archived courses". You will see this on the announcements page when you go into such an archived course: "This is a past/archived course. Certain features of this course may not be active, but we still invite you to explore the available materials." To see archived courses you can click on courses at edx.org, select courses, and then select past courses. For example, the justice course from HarvardX is available as an archived course at: edx.org. In general, we strongly encourage our university partners to offer their past courses as archived courses. A few courses (like the one you tried perhaps) are not offered as an archived course. There are several reasons why a university might choose not to offer their course as an archived course. The next version of the course might have started, and so they might take down the archived course because they reuse some of the questions which have their answers available as handouts. Or, the course might need significant resources to run, for example, special grading servers may need to be maintained, for which they may not have resources.



Professors
by pyrognat

Dear Anant,

I am a young researcher at your own institution. One might think that online courses (such as those offered by edX) will make professors (at least those who teach) obsolete. What role do you see professors playing in the future of education? As someone on that career path, I am particularly interested in your views.

Sincerely,
Nathaniel Stapleton


Agarwal: First, let me point out that professors have been using various forms of online learning for decades, so what edx and others are doing with moocs is simply taking what we have been doing to the next level in terms of scalability and quality.

Think of online learning and platforms to create great online course material not as making teachers obsolete, but as tools for teachers, which will enable them to do a lot more than they could previously with the time they had. Sadly, among the few teaching tools we have given professors in the past few centuries has been a piece of chalk. Blogging sites and online news did not make journalists obsolete, rather created 10 million journalists, while making news much more interactive and exciting. In much the same manner, online learning has the potential to transform education. Online learning and moocs can give existing professors new tools to create additional modalities of teaching. Professors and soon-to-be professors like yourself that are quick to experiment with these new tools, are likely to find success, creating new ways of engaging our millennial generation of students who are perfectly comfortable texting, tweeting, blogging, emailing, moocing, youtubing, slashdotting ( :-) ) and snapchating.

We have also been experimenting with blended models of education where you combine the best of online and in person. Initial results are promising. In one these blended model experiments in which we collaborated with san jose state university, the students watched videos, did online exercises and virtual labs on the edx online platform, and then came to class for in-person activity including working in small groups and interacting with the professor to get a deeper understanding of the material. The pass rate for this course went from a traditional average of about 60% to 90% with the blended class. Research by Brewlow et al (you can see paper at edx.org also shows that student success in a mooc course was positively correlated with working with an instructor or mentor.



Making money
by peter303

How do the VCs plan to make back their investments? That was not clear to me.

Agarwal: edX is a non-profit startup, but we still need to be self-sustaining. So we are exploring several business models spanning both B2C and B2B. Unlike other MOOC providers, since edX is a non-profit, we do not have VC investors, rather we have institutional funders including MIT and Harvard. Many of our university partners such as the UT system have also contributed $s to our cause. One can view these initial contributions as an early round of investment in edX. In the B2C space, we use a freemium model. Students can take our courses for free, and they can even get an honor code certificate for free. However, we charge a small fee for ID verified certificates. In addition to the fee for the ID verified certificate (typically between $25 and $100 for a course), we offer the students the opportunity to contribute voluntarily to our cause by paying more than the minimum fee.

In the B2B space, we work with corporations, NGO, governments and state university systems. Here, edX hosts the platform for the institution, and the institution offers its courses on our platform for their employees or for other targeted learners. They pay edX for various services such as hosting, education services, training, etc. We have a number of such partnerships underway, including one with IMF.



What about moving to an badges based system
by Joe_Dragon

Where courses can be more right sized and not jammed / padded out into the older collgle time table system. Where you don't have to take a big 2-4-6+ year block of time to get something that says to you know some thing. It can also make ongoing education / learning new skills have more meaning as well. What about merging Professional certification systems into an over all badges based system? Do you think this is an good idea?

Agarwal: This is a good idea.

Good old degrees with 4 years in college, in stove-piped departments are an antediluvian concept. Why 4 years? My bachelor's degree at IIT madras was a 5-year program, and I probably use 20% of that in my job at this point in my life. Why specialize in one field? In today's fast moving, nimble world, learners and employers are looking for multidisciplinary education. Further, they are looking to refresh their skills as the workplace needs change.

A degree, fundamentally, is a signaling mechanism. It tells an employer that the holder likely has a set of skills. In the modern world, employers are looking for a diverse set of skills. So a promising alternative is one where learners acquire a traditional degree for 2 years (certainly less than the traditional 4 years), so that they can satisfy the bean-counting HR folks that need to see something that spells degree on the resume (and that will go away too with time). Then, the learner augments that with various other signals -- call them badges, or mooc-style certificates, so that employers can now see the whole portfolio.

A couple of weeks ago, edX also announced another interesting signaling mechanism, an XSeries certificate. Here a learner can take a sequence of courses in a given discipline on edx, and by passing all the courses in the sequence, earn an XSeries certificate. MIT and edX announced XSeries certificates in foundations of computer science and supply chain management for a start. Some of you have commented that individual courses do not mean much to employers, but mastery of a discipline is akin to a mini-masters or a minor program, and is meaningful. We believe these XSeries credentials from edX will have strong signaling value to employers and take MOOC credentialing and badging one additional step forward.

I can go on and on about this. I believe that in the future degree transcripts will be replaced by a colorful portfolio of credentials, including badges and certificates. OK OK, and degrees too, for backwards compatibility.



Why not get rid of the Honor Code?
by blue trane

The Honor Code seems like a holdover from obsolete old educational methods. It seeks to make the free and open sharing of information somehow dishonorable.Often students want to help each other in the forums. The quizzes and exercises can provide interesting applications that the instructor didn't go over in the videos. Why censor a student who, of his own free will, wants to help out another student?

The Honor Code, in forbidding explicit help to questions on assignments, encourages deviousness and obfuscation in the forums. Often, posts will be made deliberately vague, so that one has to make guesses, or "read between the lines", or try to mind-read. Wouldn't it be better to encourage clear, simple explanations on the forums? Students are sometimes as (or more) knowledgeable than the instructors, and can explain things in a better, simpler way. Often the instructors have been at the subject so long that they've forgotten what it's like to look at the material for the first time. Other students can fill in the gaps. But the Honor Code works against this type of peer-helping-peer interaction, because often the most interesting applications of the subject are in the exercises.

When I've argued for the dissolution of the Honor Code before, one response has been: you just have to wait until after the deadline. However this response is not adequate, because often the deadlines are a few weeks off. When a student is engaged in a particular problem, that is the most opportune time for him to learn. I've had questions I couldn't answer, and haven't gone back to check how to do them after the deadline passes, because I'm now involved in something else...

I think the Honor Code works against the spirit of openness and freedom of speech that the internet was founded on. What kind of skills are you trying to teach, by enforcing the Honor Code? Does a client care whether you "cheated" by looking up the answer to a programming problem on the internet, when you're writing a program for him?

I think there are better technological solutions than enforcing an archaic Honor Code. Can you put a "spoiler" tag on posts that reveal how to do an assignment question, and reward those students who don't click on those posts? You're supposed to be tracking our every click...


Agarwal: The question about the honor code brings up fundamental issues about teaching and learning and the answer is not obvious. Our current education approach, whether online or in person, attempts to address two distinct issues: learning and student assessment.

Assessment attempts to verify that the student has learned the given material and has achieved a certain level of mastery in the subject. EdX and our partner universities give an honor code certificate to students who pass the course, as measured by assessments like homeworks and exams. These certificates are highly valued by a significant proportion of our learners. They often serve as signaling credentials to employers for example.

For the honor code certificate granted to an individual student to mean something as a signaling mechanism indicating mastery of the material in the course, the assessment method must represent the student’s own level of accomplishment (at least to the extent allowed by the honor code) and not that of the collaboration group to which the student belonged, or the person from whom the student may have gotten an answer. Without an honor code, there would be no honor code certificate. And hence the honor code.

Of course, we have a number of continuing learners to whom the honor code certificate, and hence the honor code, is not important. They are simply interested in learning the material, and do not care about earning a signaling mechanism. For this class of learners, we make our courses available as archived courses once their final assessments have passed their due date. Archived courses have all the answers readily available, but do not offer a certificate. Here, students can discuss answers without any worry about the honor code because there is no certificate attached.



Prestige of Online Degrees
by Calsar

I received an under graduate and master’s degree from traditional universities. I also received two masters’ degrees through on-line classes. In my opinion programs like edX are the future of education, but on-line degrees are still not regarded with the same level of prestige as those received through traditional education. In part this has been due to questionable practices of some on-line educational institutions. How can this perception be changed and do you have and do you have any plans in that regard?

Agarwal: Indeed, online education has been around for several decades. But online degrees and credentials were previously not as highly regarded as those obtained through campus education. There were a number of reasons for this beyond those that you have identified including the poorer quality of the education and relatively low success rates compared to campus programs.

This trend has changed completely in the past year for several reasons. First, reputable non-profit institutions like MIT, Harvard, Stanford, and Berkeley and their star faculty are embracing MOOCs and online learning wholeheartedly, and validating online education. To be sure, these institutions were also experimenting with online learning for decades, but their recent public endorsement and huge investments in MOOCs and rigorous online education has really helped the field gain a new respect. Imagine, you can now take online one of the world’s best AI course from Dan Klein and Pieter Abbeel from Berkeley.

Second, recent advances in computing and communications have completely altered online education and dramatically improved its quality. Content distribution networks have transformed high quality video delivery. Cloud computing enables elastic scaling to hundreds of thousands of learners and provide instant feedback for learning exercises. Social networking and discussion forums enable peer to peer learning at a global scale. And massive amounts of computing power in the palm of our hand has enabled us to offer simulation based virtual laboratories with online game-like-interaction latencies. Of course, getting large numbers of the world’s great instructors to experiment with online teaching helps online education quality more than any technology. New technologies like virtual labs and the efforts of leading instructors have enabled us to offer courses whose rigor is similar to that of campus courses.

Third, reputed universities are offering credentials like free honor code certificates for passing online courses. The introduction of ID verified certificates for a small fee adds even more to the credibility of the credential.

These are some examples of approaches that have improved the perception of online education. However, we can do a lot more. We are working with campuses to blend online learning with in-person education. Initial results in student outcomes at institutions like San Jose State University, Mass Bay Community College, and Bunker Hill Community College, are very promising. As more of these blended experiments yield good results, the perception of online learning will continue to improve, and be viewed not as an alternative to on-campus learning, but rather as complementary to it.



Motivation in Online Courses
by Eric Hosman

Motivation plays a large role in any educational setting, but this is especially true in online courses. How do you best maintain a learner's motivation after the initial novelty has worn off? Online educational opportunities attract a wide array of learners, and we can't expect them all to be intrinsically motivated at a level consistent enough to complete a course, even if they are taking it for college credit or future growth opportunities. What are the best techniques to keep as many learners as possible engaged throughout an online course.

Agarwal: As we listen to our students who are taking MOOCs, or understand the correlators to success from researchers who are studying the big data of learning, we are seeing a number of approaches to increase student motivation and improve outcomes. Here are some of them.

A recent study by Lori Breslow et al edx.org found that students were motivated and had a better chance at success if they worked in groups. Anecdotal data also points to this result. I was chatting with a learner who was taking an edX course in Krgezistan and he had to drop out half way. Later he told me that he discovered that there were three other students taking the same class in his town close to where he lived, and had he known that, he would have connected with them and stayed the course. Following these learnings, we are encouraging our students to form study groups through meetups, and facilitating this with links to meetup sites in the course introduction email.

We are hearing from our learners that the certificate is a big part of the motivation. Although you can audit a course, we are giving free honor code certificates, and also ID verified certificates to our students for a small fee. EdX also provides an online link with a unique identifier for each of these certificates so that an employer can verify that the certificate is indeed authentic. Students are linking these certificates on their various social pages and on their resumes.

Many learners and employers have also asked us to create sequences of courses, so they have a program that they can follow. In response to this demand, we launched XSeries, a sequence of courses in a discipline. A student can also obtain a certificate for an XSeries. We believe that programs such as this will increase the motivation of students to complete their existing course, so they can go on to the next one, eventually earning an XSeries certificate to indicate mastery in a given discipline.



MOOCs more about Teachers than Learners
by IRGlover

As social creatures much of our knowledge is built from social interactions, where we integrate our own experiences and beliefs with that of others to build new knowledge and understanding (i.e. Social Constructivism). The current dominant MOOC model is extremely procedural, teacher-centered and discourages these types of social interactions. While this works well for some subjects (particularly at introductory levels), it is much less effective in other situations. How can the large MOOC platforms, and EdX in particular, encourage a more social method of learning?

Agarwal: I am not sure I agree with your thesis that the current dominant MOOC model is extremely procedural. Although many components are procedural, social and peer learning is a central part of MOOC platforms. Take the example of the discussion forum. Learners post questions on the forum, and a majority of the answers and discussion comes from peer learners. Many students are telling us that they are learning by teaching on the forum.

Based on feedback from many of our colleagues in the humanities where the small discussion group is a central part of the learning process, we created the concept of cohorts in the discussion forum. Cohorts enable us to create many smaller groups and assign each student to a specific cohort. A number of courses such as the Greek Heroes course from HarvardX and the Copyright Law course also from HarvardX used this mechanism during Spring 2013. Harvard went a step further and engaged their alumni to help as community moderators in each of these cohorts.

Many courses are taking advantage of the international diversity of the students on the platform to conduct course related studies and discussions. The Public Health course from Harvard for example did a study where they surveyed their worldwide students in the course in how they did certain things in their part of the world, and then discussed it on the forums. Such diversity and numbers are simply not possible in a campus class.

We have a wiki on the platform as part of each course where students work together and contribute material. In fact, in some of the courses the wiki notes produced by students are so good that it would not take the group much additional effort to turn the set of notes into a textbook.

For question types where the computer is not great at grading, we support peer grading, in which students grade each other’s work. Here again, the peer group is key to the learning and assessment process.

That said, we can and should do even more to take advantage of the peer learning effects that are possible with MOOCs. Here is but one example of the many that we have been thinking about.

It turns out that we can post some of our simulation laboratories on the wiki where students can collaborate on labs. Imagine asking the students to work together to solve a lab problem working jointly to design a circuit. In fact, when we posted our simulation lab tool on the wiki just for fun in the 6.002x circuits course, we had a student who had begun the design of a circuit on the wiki, and had then stepped out for a break. When he returned, he noticed his circuit had changed and he reported to us that the tool was buggy. Little did he realize that his circuit had been modified by an unknown collaborator probably from around the world!



Are teaching faculty dead?
by Anonymous Coward

Currently, many 2nd and 3rd tier universities rely heavily on (cost-effective) adjuncts and teaching-only "lecturers" for the majority of the instructional duties. To further maximize revenue, these schools could replace adjuncts and lecturers with MOOCs taught by professors at 1st tier universities. Are lecturers and adjuncts dead?

Agarwal: I believe the exact opposite will happen! I predict that 10 years from now there will be a much greater number of adjuncts and lecturers, and a much greater choice of courses for students in 2nd and 3rd tier universities. Similarly, the quality of education will also increase in all universities, whether 1st tier or 3rd tier. Read on.

Think of online learning and platforms to create great online course material not as making teachers obsolete, but as tools for teachers, which will enable them to do a lot more than they could previously with the time they had. Sadly, one of the few teaching tools we have given professors in the past few centuries has been a piece of chalk. Blogging sites and online news did not make journalists obsolete, rather created 10 million journalists, while making news much more interactive and exciting. In much the same manner, online learning has the potential to transform education. Online learning and moocs can give existing professors new tools to create additional modalities of teaching. Instructors that are quick to experiment with these new tools are likely to find success, creating new ways of engaging our millennial generation of students who are perfectly comfortable texting, tweeting, blogging, emailing, moocing, youtubing, slashdotting (:-) ) and snapchating.

We have also been experimenting with blended models of education where you combine the best of online and in person. This model seems perfect for courses which are taught by an adjunct, where the adjunct has the choice to leverage online material from a MOOC course much like a new-age textbook, and improve the overall student experience. The blended approach works great even for courses taught by a professor at a top tier university. My colleagues and I used this model ourselves for an experimental group of 20 students at MIT for the MITx 6.002x circuits and electronics, our first MOOC course on edX, and came away with a good experience (see the paper by Afridi et al at edx.org).

In one these blended model experiments in which we collaborated with San Jose State University, the students watched videos, did online exercises and virtual labs from the 6.002x course on our online platform, and then came to class for in-person activity including working in small groups and interacting with a professor to get a deeper understanding of the material. Armando Fox from Berkeley has termed such courses SPOCs (small private online courses). The pass rate for this course went from a traditional average of about 60% to 90% with the blended class. Research by Brewlow et al (you can see paper athttps://www.edx.org/research[edx.org]) also shows that student success in a mooc course was positively correlated with working with an instructor or lecturer.

This may seem surprising, but I believe that the opportunity to use MOOCs in the SPOC model will result in universities hiring more adjunct faculty to offer wider choices of quality courses for their students. This will be a good thing for both students and adjuncts.
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Anant Agarwal Answers Your Questions About edX and the Future of Education

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