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Education The Internet

Interview: Ask President Anant Agarwal About edX and the Future of Education 73

Anant Agarwal is a professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT and the President of edX. A massive open online course platform founded by MIT and Harvard, edX offers numerous courses on a wide variety of subjects and is affiliated with 29 different institutes of higher education. Mr. Agarwal has agreed to take some time out of his schedule and answer your questions about edX and the future of learning. As usual, ask as many as you'd like, but please, one question per post.
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Interview: Ask President Anant Agarwal About edX and the Future of Education

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  • 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

    • Coursera does a nice job of it...

    • 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 ava
  • professors (Score:4, Insightful)

    by pyrognat ( 233814 ) on Tuesday October 01, 2013 @11:40AM (#45003369)

    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.

    Nathaniel Stapleton

    • by ediron2 ( 246908 )

      As the head of a university, Agarwal has a vested interest in receiving a continuing stream of cheap grad student and postdoc labor. His views are predictable: mumble mumble 'online courseware' mumble 'disruption' mumble mumble 'grad school good' mumble mumble unicorns rainbows mumble 'everyone should get advanced degrees.'

      There's a bit of irony here: edX is at least embracing the destructive change, even if he's impacting the stark unemployment numbers facing outlier-field PhDs today. Compare this to blind

    • by metlin ( 258108 )

      Most professors are hired not for their ability to teach but rather their ability to do research. In fact, some of the "best" professors are horrible teachers -- they may be experts in their fields, but aren't necessarily the best teachers. As such, I would guess that the role of professors will remain unchanged. If anything, it will free up the professors from teaching responsibilities and they will merely provide "support".

      Plus, I think that is the way it should be -- some of my best professors have been

    • 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

  • by peter303 ( 12292 ) on Tuesday October 01, 2013 @11:41AM (#45003393)
    How do the VCs plan to make back their investments? That was not clear to me.
    • The answer to this obvious question will frame every other question. It should have been included in the main post.

    • Dont know about edX, but Coursera is trying to be a Linkedin for people with no CVs. They aggregate all your data (course results) and sell it to potential first employers

    • I asked one of the edX higher-ups (not Dr. Agarwal) about this.

      Apparently, there's a lot of interest from companies looking for good talent. For example, people who score in the upper 10% of a high-tech course would be of interest to many companies. Especially in today's market, where putting out a job listing will get thousands of inappropriate resumes.

      IIRC, the top 2% of the original AI course [udacity.com] (Udacity, not edX) students could optionally have their resume sent to Google for consideration.

      The edX higher-up

      • by peter303 ( 12292 )
        I dont think HR would be interested in the grades of single course. That is a pipe dream. I probably took 40 courses at MIT and another 25 Stanford. And the only time specific course came up were for summer jobs.
    • 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. Studen

  • 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?

  • The cost of college education has been growing at an unsustainable rate. What do you think the underlying cause is and what effect will programs like edX have?

  • by blue trane ( 110704 ) on Tuesday October 01, 2013 @12:01PM (#45003655) Homepage Journal

    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...


    • real work places are open book / team based / learn on the job.

      Also lot's lots of the times the book may say this but in the real world setting it's some what different.

    • An Honor Code covers things other than cheating or "open book" issues. see: https://www.edx.org/terms [edx.org]

      Would you argue against this: "Not engage in any activity that would dishonestly improve my results, or improve or hurt the results of others." ?

      • by gl4ss ( 559668 )

        "dishonest" has varying definitions. so people with varying definitions of it are at different advantages.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      As someone who teaches at the college level, there's a pretty clear answer to this question.

      Collaboration is very useful when solving complex advanced problems. I highly recommend it for senior-level project courses and the like, which allows various students to bring their own perspective and knowledge to projects which may not have a single "right answer."

      But this rarely works for intro or intermediate level classes.

      Allowing unfettered collaboration between students on all (or most) assignments oft

    • For students who want an education, no honor code is needed. For students who just want a credential, no honor code is sufficient.

    • I've been in several online courses.

      The honor code doesn't disallow you from helping someone else through a problem, it disallows you from solving the problem for the other person.

      We see this all the time in the discussion forums - someone comes in with "I don't know how to do this", and everyone jumps in to help. If it's a homework problem we can rephrase, use analogy, and solve a similar problem... but we can't outright give the answer or the exact steps for solving.

  • 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 plan

  • It seems one needs a PhD in CS to create an online course - shouldn't teachers really be able to create content on their own?

  • First let me say thank you, I really appreciate edx.org and the freedom it allows for me to continue learning new subjects. I just started taking my first class on edx yesterday, Leaning from Data, via Caltech, it looks to be a very interesting course! My question is about the future graduates from edx or similar online learning centers. Will people from around the world be able to compete in the global job market while using a degree or certificate from an online institute instead of a degree from a phy
  • I enjoyed taking MITx 6.002x with you last year. Is there any chance there will be a EE certificate program or graduate level courses (specialty courses) in the future?
  • by IRGlover ( 1096317 ) on Tuesday October 01, 2013 @12:27PM (#45003943)
    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-centred 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?
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Recently Google and EdX partnered up to create Mooc.org, which is being called by the Chronicle of Higher Ed the "Youtube for MOOCs". Will we start seeing less of a walled garden where experts in their own field can create these kinds of classes without having to be chosen as being part of a "worthy" institution like we've seen with EdX, Coursera, and FutureLearn? The trend towards inviduals becoming "superprofessors" is troubling, and I see very little collaboration between institutions to make these cours

  • by Eric Hosman ( 3345395 ) on Tuesday October 01, 2013 @12:48PM (#45004179)
    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?
  • To what extent has the knowledge that the NSA can watch all of your students, both foreign and domestic, affected the number of people signing up for your courses? Do you expect to be able to do business outside the US now it has been confirmed that the US government has access to all your student data, one way or another?

  • by Joe_Dragon ( 2206452 ) on Tuesday October 01, 2013 @12:50PM (#45004205)

    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?

    • 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 signalling m

    • http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-03-11/news/ct-oped-0311-page-20120311_1_college-costs-rise-kayla-heard-college-attendance

      Hmm... from that article:

      "These are jobs that do not require higher-level learning skills, critical thinking skills, or writing skills or anything of that nature," [Vedder, education expert] said in a telephone interview. [snip]

      Let's go a step further, says Vedder.

      "As college costs rise," he said, "people are asking: Aren't there cheaper ways of certifying competence and skills to employers?"

      Hmm... so, we want to "certify" the "competence" of someone for an employer for a job that does not require "higher-level learning skills, critical thinking skills, or writing skills or anything of that nature." Isn't that called a high school diploma? Or, maybe even an 8th-grade graduation certificate? Seriously. You should not need a bachelor's degree to work in the sort of job described here. In fact, you shouldn't even need a high-school diploma for a job that doesn't requi

  • by gwstuff ( 2067112 ) on Tuesday October 01, 2013 @01:37PM (#45004729)

    Do you foresee such courses to be conducted primarily in English? In the long run, how do you see them being made accessible to speakers of other languages?
    One possibility is to get them dubbed by translators, but then there is the inevitable loss in translation. Can one imagine setting up a network around the world and get the best professors record lectures in their native language.

  • I am very interested in considering the process to get my Ph.D. in Computer Science, online?
  • by markhahn ( 122033 ) on Tuesday October 01, 2013 @03:25PM (#45006065)

    People tend to focus on surface issues when considering how traditional Higher Education (HE) will relate to Online Education (OE). Things like the concept of lectures, or the character of universities if research and teaching are severed.

    But much of the value (and much of an instructor's effort) actually goes toward establishing some measure of competency of the student: a grade. Other comments here have mentioned Honor Code, for instance, but that's not so much a problem as simply an attempt to ensure that a face-to-face course's grading is accurately assigning competence to individuals. for OE, it's even more natural to seek some form of collaborative learning (or outside assistance), especially if the OE course is self-paced. And really, why shouldn't a student simply continue to take the OE course until they are competent (or give up)? In which case, the import of an OE course is mainly in the competency testing - it's certification aspect.

    So, is certification the way that traditional HE institutions become relevant to the future where everything is OE?

  • As production value becomes more important , will professors eventually be replaced by actors who may not have a command of the material, but can use a well-written script to deliver course material in a more engaging fashion?

  • As a hiring manager, I would not care if a candidate had completed their degree online or offline so long as it was a real degree (we can test some things, but the whole point of a qualification is that it's supposed to mean something). However, there seems to be a big reluctance by established universities to give degrees based on these online courses so far. What needs to change for that to happen and will it ever?

  • Greetings Dr Agarwal,

    The invisible part of MOOCs is the massive collection of data on the behavior of students. Here, we're talking about Learning Analytics and Big Data which should be used to improve the next generation of MOOCs. This is a common practice of Web 2.0, the improvement process à la Google that exploits the data of its millions of users to improve its search engine. Here, students' data are a goldmine.

    It is not easy for a teacher to find the sources of confusion and less effectiv