Wed, 23 Oct 2019

Transforming higher education

Posted on Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Sanjay Sarma, director of digital learning and professor of mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is in charge of building courses that appear on edX. In an interview with Poonam Jain he tells her how learning is happening beyond class rooms and where it is heading with the MOOCs

Learning is happening in different ways beyond classrooms. True? 

Yes, learning is happening in different ways on campus: Labs, machine shops, in dorms, through projects, and so on -- beyond the simple classroom. Lectures are still important, but more and more institutions are looking at online learning, project-based learning, problem-based learning and so on. These ideas encourage active engagement with the student rather than passive listening. Online is helping with aspects of learning, especially the transmission of codified content -- what we call instruction. Online is being seen as a substitute for some forms of lecturing.

Experts claim that there will be fundamental, massive change in some way over the next 15 years, all tied to technology. What kind of changes? 

Active learning, project-based learning, problem-based learning and similar ideas all require more face-time and one-on-one time between the professor and the student. Online learning can substitute lecture time and free up the professor to spend more time in active interaction with the professor. Automatic grading enables professors to be sure that students have done some basic preparation before they come to the classroom, the studio, the lab or the machine shop so that the student face-to-face time can be enriched further. For students who don't have access to colleges or campus life, i.e., when face-to-face time if impossible, MOOC classes provide a level or instruction that has been unprecedented thus far.

What is so revolutionary about the MOOCs other than scale?

MIT and many other universities have posted lectures on the internet for a decade now.
MOOCs contain online video but that is not new. The things that distinguish MOOCs are: 1. Automatic online grading -- which enables students to do exercises and get grades and certificates. 2. Forums in which students can ask questions and get them answered, often by peers, enabling them to have their doubts cleared as if in a classroom. 3. In the case of edX, online simulations and visualising, which further enrich the experience. Simulations include building a circuit and testing it, or viewing a complex molecule are examples.

MOOCs -- what promise does it bring, what fears does it bring?

MOOCs will be the great equaliser; enabling any college to get great lectures. The professors in the college can then ‘flip the classroom’. This means engaging in active learning with students. This is usually win-win for students -- higher quality lectures and higher quality onsite experiences. However, this will also mean a way of work for professors. This brings fear -- change always brings trepidation.

Aren’t MOOCs really marketing opportunities for the universities? After customers taste the lectures they might actually pay for the rest of the course?

edX is free - students can take the class for free. There are other services that ay cost money -- certification or proctored certification are examples. Over 10 years ago, MIT made its curriculum open through the Open Courseware efforts. Today we get more than 1 million visitors a month. We don't believe people will tune out of edX offerings. And if they do, so be it. We are engaging in this activity not just as a service to the world, but also as a service to ourselves. More than anything, we plan to use the online material to change the way we teach on campus.

Currently, MOOCs just teach. How does it plan to compete with established universities if MOOCs don’t provide credible qualification? After all, even the most passionate knowledge lover wants qualifications.

We don't want to compete with established universities. We work with established universities. We see a trend towards change in teaching methods, and we believe that MOOCs will enable everyone to improve. Meanwhile, a large fraction of our students are actually older. They are taking classes online simply to enrich themselves. Finally, we do provide certificates (the majority of which have been free) and we hear that people do value them.

How far in the future will MOOCs become sound academic currency?

We don't see MOOCs as replacing online degrees any time soon although some universities are testing the waters. We are big believers in the magic that occurs on campus. We do see the certificates provided by MOOCs, taken the context of narrower subject matter such as programming or biology, being valued already.

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