Today, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, open learning advocate Rafael Reif takes office as the institute’s 17th president. A major force behind MITx, the school’s open online learning initiative, Reif intends to prioritize innovation in education. As the movement for open online learning grows more popular, MIT and other major institutes of higher education seem convinced of its role in the future, even if some regret the lack of fundamental change brought to the process. Will Reif’s dedication to the cause pay off for students, and usher in an education revolution?
Today, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) enters a new era as its 17th president officially takes office. The appointment of open learning innovator and electrical engineering researcher Rafael Reif has been received with sincere warmth by the school’s community. Quoted in Technology Review, colleagues describe him as “one of the finest human beings I’ve ever known”, and call Reif a “splendid” choice to lead the university.
A president meriting such accolades bodes well for the future of this prestigious institution. One of Reif’s recent major projects also bodes well for many more, even far afield from the Cambridge, Massachusetts campus. Formerly head of MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Provost of the university for the last seven years, Dr. Reif is probably most well known outside the university for his support of MITx. The online learning initiative announced last December will offer a selection of genuine, interactive MIT courses for free on the internet, available to anyone worldwide. Video lectures, problem sets, discussion boards and tests will all feature in the online format. The first MITx course, “6.002x (Circuits and Electronics)”, was launched in March with more than 150,000 students enrolled, and recently wrapped up at the beginning of June.
This program of open learning is in line with MIT’s mission to maintain higher education as a public good – both in the classroom and online. It also seems natural coming from Rafael Reif. The youngest of four sons of Eastern European immigrants, Reif grew up in Venezuela in extremely modest circumstances. His family’s wealth lay in their integrity and principles, he told the audience gathered for the announcementof his election; his father, especially, emphasized the importance of education. These influences, no doubt, help drive his support for bringing learning opportunities to the developing world and, in particular, for MITx.
Online learning initiatives of this kind have been multiplying in recent years. Khan Academy is one well-known example, and today a number of highly respected institutions are working to bring the concept to the university level. In September 2011, led by Professor Sebastian Thrun and Google’s Peter Norvig, Stanford University offered a massive open online course, or MOOC, on artificial intelligence. In the wake of its success, Stanford spinoffs Coursera and Udacity soon followed. At the beginning of May 2012, MIT and Harvard University announced the merger of their online course offerings, known collectively as edX. Again, it was Rafael Reif who led his institution into this $60 million initiative. Most recently, on June 19, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced that $9 million would be awarded in grants to support “breakthrough learning models in postsecondary education.”
There is growing consensus that the future of education – or at least a good chunk of it – will be open and online. (Some are so convinced, in fact, that the rush toward online learning is at the heart of the recent scandal surrounding the forced resignation of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan.) Anant Agarwal, director of MIT’s Computer science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, and the first president of edX, told the BBC “we’ve crossed the tipping point.” He expects enrolment in their fall course offerings to exceed 500,000.
Certain initiatives, like edX, promise to be revolutionary in terms of accessibility, making courses free and certificates of achievement highly affordable. The edX platform will be open source, allowing other institutions to participate in its improvement, as well as make use of it themselves. In this spirit of openness, the leaders of MITx will use their Gates Foundation grant to bring their materials to colleges with limited resources. In a practice called “flipped classrooms”, students will watch video lectures given by MIT professors, and use class time for practical exercises and additional help. But MITx was also intended to enhance the learning experience for students present at the Institute itself by supplementing their course material. In this respect, the question is whether online resources will really revolutionize how education is done.
In an article titled “What MIT Should Have Done”, Dan Butin observes the many benefits of the blossoming of online learning. However, the scholar in higher education and founding dean of the School of Education at Merrimack College, seems profoundly disappointed at what he sees as a missed opportunity. “MITx, and all such similar initiatives, are still delivering a Learning 1.0 product in a Web 2.0 world. They have replicated all of the problems of the traditional industrial-age model of lecture-based teaching and testing that has minimal linkage to student outcomes.”
Professor Butin believes that online education holds real potential for revolutionary change, but that it is not in the scale of these proliferating MOOCs. Rather, he feels that leaders in the movement, like MIT, should take the opportunity to create a truly new paradigm, where feedback is immediate and pertinent to the individual student and, therefore, more useful than simple end-of-course testing.
Butin goes on to suggest specific ways in which such an online course could work differently from a traditional lecture approach. (For example, it could use “an adaptive testing model in which students are presented with a question about a lecture topic at an appropriate level of difficulty based on their previous answers”, allowing them to progress more efficiently). Most would agree that fundamental changes in the delivery of education would be necessary for a true paradigm shift. Not everyone is disappointed with MIT’s approach, though. One participant in “6.002x Circuits and Electronics”, commenting on Dan Butin’s post, does not recognize his or her own experience in the criticisms of MITx’s first MOOC, adding that the instructors, delivering traditional lectures, “approached almost superhero status with the students."
At the end of three months of “Circuits and Electronics”, 7,157 students passed the final exam and earned their certificate of achievement. Considering that more than 150,000 people initially enrolled, this amounts to a student retention rate of “only” 5%. For Dan Butin, this “makes it clear that it is the course, and not the student, at the heart of their conceptual paradigm.” But the landscape of the MOOC phenomenon is too complex to focus only on the 140,000-plus dropouts. Sue Gee’s analysis for I Programmer examines how many students withdrew at what point in the course, revealing far more about registrants’ intentions and expectations. Fifty-five percent, for instance, had already dropped out either before the course began or upon seeing the difficulty of the first problem set. And, in the end, the reality is that more than seven thousand people around the world who needed, for whatever reason, to learn about the very specific subject of circuit design were able to do so from a world-class professor, for free. That opportunity almost can not be overestimated.
The thing to keep in mind is that MOOCs are in their early days and will necessarily evolve from here. Regarding its support of MITx’s “flipped classroom” project, the Gates Foundation views this as a test phase to determine the efficacy of the online courses as a supplement to class time and how to make the most of these resources. “There is a lot of experimentation that needs to be done,” Rafael Reif told the press on the morning of his election. “We're beginning a new era. The good news is that not much is known, so everything is up to us to discover.”
Find out more: “MITx: What the students think” http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2012/mitx-student-responses-to-prototype-course-0427.html “MITx: MIT’s Vision for Online Learning”, by L. Rafael Reif http://web.mit.edu/fnl/volume/243/reif.html "The MOOC Misnomer", iterating toward openness http://opencontent.org/blog/archives/2436 “Who Takes MOOCs?”, Inside Higher Ed http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/06/05/early-demographic-data-hints-what-type-student-takes-mooc 500 Free Online Courses from Top Universities, Open Culture http://www.openculture.com/freeonlinecourses Infographic: What the students think about MITx http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/infographics/mitx-student-responses.html “Presenting MIT’s 17th President, L. Rafael Reif”, a video of the speech http://amps-web.amps.ms.mit.edu/public/mit/2011-2012/2012may16-Community_Lecture/