New online learning platforms from the nation’s top universities are reinventing higher education.
If you were to list some of society’s greatest innovations, you might include the combustion engine, airplanes, computers and social networks.
Your list would likely have no innovations related to education.
Education has experienced few technological advances. From primary education classrooms to the halls of university campuses, the dominant form of teaching remains the static one-hour lecture — a form that has remained unchanged for centuries.
In an era of 24/7 digital connectivity, where you get a better response from someone by text than by phone, a lack of innovation and technology in education is surprising.
“In a lot of classrooms, professors ask students to turn off their laptops and fight the use of social media, and so there’s very little screen time,” says Anant Agarwal, president of an initiative called edX that is re-imagining the educational experience through an online learning platform.
Leading institutions — such as MIT, Harvard and Stanford — recognize that technology is ready to transform education like it has for the healthcare and mobile application industries. New efforts like edX aim to change the antiquated notion of education by streaming knowledge to the masses.
The advent of change in education comes at no better time. There is a growing dissatisfaction among entrepreneurs, like PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, with the “higher education bubble”. With high school graduation rates lower than most other commonwealth countries and people being weighed down by college debts, the United States is in an educational slump.
Cue massive open online courses (MOOCs) — such as edX, Udacity and Coursera — that have popped up over the past year. These platforms are aggregating course materials from leading academic institutions around the country and offering them to knowledge-hungry people around the world.
EdX launched with 155,000 students from 162 countries enrolled in its pilot electronic circuits course in Spring 2012, according to Argawal. The numbers have since risen to 600,000, with more than 20 courses taught by leading professors, such as the human genome pioneer Eric Lander. Legendary physics professor Walter Lewin is teaching his electricity and magnetism course on the site this spring.
MOOCs are different than traditional online courses. These educational platforms are leveraging the best thinkers and resources to teach people who may have never had the opportunity to even attend college. MOOCs combine unprecedented global reach, low price points, certificates for credit and visionary leaders who foresee a better future for education.
With MOOCs, students are engaged throughout the learning process. Students are asked questions throughout lectures and cannot continue until they answer correctly. Their activity is continuously monitored and the data is evaluated to make the experience as tailored as possible. With instant feedback, students don’t have to wait for their grades.
Interactive techniques can also be applied, such as the popular A/B test, that allow different forms of teaching to be compared for improved learning and retention. Agarwal calls this level of interactivity the “gamification of learning”, a way to make learning more engaging and personal.
But the question remains: will this new form of learning actually work?
Of the 155,000 people that initially enrolled for edX’s first electronic circuits course, only 23,000 remained engaged and only 7,000 students passed. Still, almost 40 times more edX students passed than a normal class size at MIT (175 students). While that’s an impressive feat, the small fraction of students that actually passed indicates that there is a larger problem of commitment on the online platform.
Complicating the problem of motivation is the rise of an “odyssey generation” of students who are college graduates but not sure of what they want to do in life. They test out various career opportunities, take breaks, live with friends and often return back to school to further hone their interests. Campuses offer advising, seminars, easy access to professors and connections to summer internships – and still many students leave unsure of how to apply their education to make a living.
The MOOCs have it right when it comes to tracking student behavior. The insights gleaned from all the data can be used for motivating youth and mitigating high school and college drop-out rates. The collection of so much data on every student’s activity and performance creates an electronic education record. Instead of becoming frustrated with the system, students can now look to the system to adjust to their needs and improve.
MOOCs are spreading rapidly. Boston Mayor Tom Menino recently announced a partnership with edX to form BostonX, which will open community centers around the city for edX students to gather, interact and work with volunteer instructors from Harvard and MIT. It’s a step in the right direction to bridge the gap between online learning and on-campus instruction. Instructors at partner universities are also investigating ways to integrate the benefits of online learning into their classes on campus, which many students are eager to experience.
“EdX is like a particle accelerator – with so many students, we can run many experiments and learn how to make edX better,” Agarwal said.
The hope is that we are entering a new era of global, high-quality and affordable education. One thing is for certain: education must be at the top of your innovations list now.
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