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“Reinventing Education” meeting with Anant Agarwal of edX 

Sponsored by Rice University Provost’s Office 

January 11, 2013 

12:00 p.m. 

 

Faculty Senate Speaker Carl Caldwell introduced Anant Agarwal, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor and the president of edX.  Agarwal explained to the assembled faculty that edX was founded by MIT and Harvard University, and it began by offering one Massively Open Online Course (MOOC). Today, there are six member universities which offer online learning at no charge. The members are MIT, Harvard, University of California at Berkeley, the University of Texas System, Wellesley College, and Georgetown University. Agarwal said that the primary goal of edX is not to just provide access to education, but to reimagine it; to reinvent on-campus education. He compared innovations in education over the last century (few) to those in transportation (many).  Agarwal described edX as an open source platform, combining a portal for learning, pedagogy research, and production quality. He said that there are currently 600,000 users on the platform.

 

Agarwal described the first course offered via edX, a very difficult circuits course offered at MIT, and one that requires several prerequisite courses if taken on campus. He said that 155,000 students from 162 countries signed up for the course with edX, with no prerequisites required.  A portion of these students took the first exam, fewer took the second exam, and at the end of the course, 7,157 students successfully completed the course and were awarded certificates. (One of the students was a 15-year old boy from Mongolia was scored a 100.) Agarwal said that this number is approximately equal to the number of students he could have taught on campus in a 20-year career. He added that the edX course required the same staff resources that one 150-person class would have required on campus.

 

Agarwal gave an example of how a “blended” class of 20 on-campus students and 100 online students operates. The student views lecture sequences (videos) with “snippets” interweaved which contain questions or exercises for the student to complete. The exercises are auto graded, providing instant feedback for the student, which according to research Agarwal cited, improves learning. He explained how the video is self-paced and can be paused or navigated as needed by the student, an advantage over in-class lectures, according to research. In addition, he said that teens/students are very comfortable with online learning, including discussion forums and communicating with other students. Agarwal said that even the on-campus MIT students went to the online discussion format to ask questions. He noted that the median response time was 11 minutes; the student did not have to wait for a professor’s office hours to ask his/her question. Agarwal touched briefly on other components of the edX learning experience, including the virtual game-like laboratory, a wiki space where students can collaborate, and music-based experiments using java script. He said that at the end of the course, a “Certificate of Mastery” is issued for passing the course, not just completing it, on an honor basis. For a fee, a student may take a proctored final exam, and the certificate will reflect this information.

 

At the end of the presentation, a question and answer session was held.

 

Question:  If a student receives the certificate and then takes it to MIT, will it be worth anything?
Answer:  This is new technology; universities will have to figure out what to do. Will the student be required to take the course again? It’s your call. I have already been presented with this situation. What I do is spend 30 minutes with the student to determine if they should perhaps just take the final exam, or perhaps just complete the (hands-on) labs, in order to earn credit for the course.

 

Question:  Can you describe the edX experience for the on-campus students?
Answer:  In fall 2012, San Jose State University had a blended class with online and on-campus students. The on-campus students would watch the lecture videos in their dormitory rooms (similar to the online students), and then come to class for the professor to discuss, augment, or introduce new information. If edX is taking care of the lecture portion of the course, the professor has more time for projects.

 

Question:  Do you offer non-science edX courses? How would you grade them?
Answer:  Yes, these are being developed now. For example, we offer a course entitled “Greek Heroes.” Regarding the grading of these courses, edX has built the first grader for free-form content; an essay-type answer to a question can be graded by the computer.

 

Question:  Who owns the content?
Answer:  The member universities or the professors. The content is not owned by edX; it is owned by the university.

 

Question:  What about copyright?
Answer:  The professor owns the copyright.

 

Question:  What information do you collect about the students?
Answer:  We collect a small amount of background information at first. Later, we are collecting information with every click.

 

Question:  Do you (the professor) get teaching credit for the edX course?
Answer:  It depends on the university. At MIT, this is viewed as creating a course, but I am expected to teach it on campus at some point, as well.

 

Agarwal also said that edX is generating money which is shared 50/50 with the member universities. He said that some universities share it with the individual professors who are involved in the program.

 

Speaker Caldwell thanked Agarwal for his presentation, and the meeting was adjourned at 12:55 p.m. Agarwal received a round of applause from the assembled faculty members.