Anant Agarwal: Why massive open online courses (still) matter
2013 was a year of hype for MOOCs (massive open online courses). Great big numbers and great big hopes were followed by some disappointing first results. But the head of edX, Anant Agarwal, makes the case that MOOCs still matter -- as a way to share high-level learning widely and supplement (but perhaps not replace) traditional classrooms. Agarwal shares his vision of blended learning, where teachers create the ideal learning experience for 21st century students.
I'd like to reimagine education. The last year has seen the invention of a new four-letter word. It starts with an M. MOOC: massive open online courses. Many organizations are offering these online courses to students all over the world, in the millions, for free. Anybody who has an Internet connection and the will to learn can access these great courses from excellent universities and get a credential at the end of it. Now, in this discussion today, I'm going to focus on a different aspect of MOOCs. We are taking what we are learning and the technologies we are developing in the large and applying them in the small to create a blended model of education to really reinvent and reimagine what we do in the classroom.
Now, our classrooms could use change. So, here's a classroom at this little three-letter institute in the Northeast of America, MIT. And this was a classroom about 50 or 60 years ago, and this is a classroom today. What's changed? The seats are in color. Whoop-de-do. Education really hasn't changed in the past 500 years. The last big innovation in education was the printing press and the textbooks. Everything else has changed around us. You know, from healthcare to transportation, everything is different, but education hasn't changed.
It's also been a real issue in terms of access. So what you see here is not a rock concert. And the person you see at the end of the stage is not Madonna. This is a classroom at the Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria. Now, we've all heard of distance education, but the students way in the back, 200 feet away from the instructor, I think they are undergoing long-distance education. Now, I really believe that we can transform education, both in quality and scale and access, through technology. For example, at edX, we are trying to transform education through online technologies. Given education has been calcified for 500 years, we really cannot think about reengineering it, micromanaging it. We really have to completely reimagine it. It's like going from ox carts to the airplane. Even the infrastructure has to change. Everything has to change. We need to go from lectures on the blackboard to online exercises, online videos. We have to go to interactive virtual laboratories and gamification. We have to go to completely online grading and peer interaction and discussion boards. Everything really has to change.
So at edX and a number of other organizations, we are applying these technologies to education through MOOCs to really increase access to education. And you heard of this example, where, when we launched our very first course -- and this was an MIT-hard circuits and electronics course -- about a year and a half ago, 155,000 students from 162 countries enrolled in this course. And we had no marketing budget. Now, 155,000 is a big number. This number is bigger than the total number of alumni of MIT in its 150-year history. 7,200 students passed the course, and this was a hard course. 7,200 is also a big number. If I were to teach at MIT two semesters every year, I would have to teach for 40 years before I could teach this many students.
Now these large numbers are just one part of the story. So today, I want to discuss a different aspect, the other side of MOOCs, take a different perspective. We are taking what we develop and learn in the large and applying it in the small to the classroom, to create a blended model of learning.
But before I go into that, let me tell you a story. When my daughter turned 13, became a teenager, she stopped speaking English, and she began speaking this new language. I call it teen-lish. It's a digital language. It's got two sounds: a grunt and a silence.
"Honey, come over for dinner."
"Did you hear me?"
"Can you listen to me?"
So we had a real issue with communicating, and we were just not communicating, until one day I had this epiphany. I texted her. (Laughter) I got an instant response. I said, no, that must have been by accident. She must have thought, you know, some friend of hers was calling her. So I texted her again. Boom, another response. I said, this is great. And so since then, our life has changed. I text her, she responds. It's just been absolutely great. (Applause)
So our millennial generation is built differently. Now, I'm older, and my youthful looks might belie that, but I'm not in the millennial generation. But our kids are really different. The millennial generation is completely comfortable with online technology. So why are we fighting it in the classroom? Let's not fight it. Let's embrace it. In fact, I believe -- and I have two fat thumbs, I can't text very well -- but I'm willing to bet that with evolution, our kids and their grandchildren will develop really, really little, itty-bitty thumbs to text much better, that evolution will fix all of that stuff. But what if we embraced technology, embraced the millennial generation's natural predilections, and really think about creating these online technologies, blend them into their lives. So here's what we can do. So rather than driving our kids into a classroom, herding them out there at 8 o'clock in the morning -- I hated going to class at 8 o'clock in the morning, so why are we forcing our kids to do that? So instead what you do is you have them watch videos and do interactive exercises in the comfort of their dorm rooms, in their bedroom, in the dining room, in the bathroom, wherever they're most creative. Then they come into the classroom for some in-person interaction. They can have discussions amongst themselves. They can solve problems together. They can work with the professor and have the professor answer their questions. In fact, with edX, when we were teaching our first course on circuits and electronics around the world, this was happening unbeknownst to us. Two high school teachers at the Sant High School in Mongolia had flipped their classroom, and they were using our video lectures and interactive exercises, where the learners in the high school, 15-year-olds, mind you, would go and do these things in their own homes and they would come into class, and as you see from this image here, they would interact with each other and do some physical laboratory work. And the only way we discovered this was they wrote a blog and we happened to stumble upon that blog.
We were also doing other pilots. So we did a pilot experimental blended courses, working with San Jose State University in California, again, with the circuits and electronics course. You'll hear that a lot. That course has become sort of like our petri dish of learning. So there, the students would, again, the instructors flipped the classroom, blended online and in person, and the results were staggering. Now don't take these results to the bank just yet. Just wait a little bit longer as we experiment with this some more, but the early results are incredible. So traditionally, semester upon semester, for the past several years, this course, again, a hard course, had a failure rate of about 40 to 41 percent every semester. With this blended class late last year, the failure rate fell to nine percent. So the results can be extremely, extremely good.
Now before we go too far into this, I'd like to spend some time discussing some key ideas. What are some key ideas that makes all of this work?
One idea is active learning. The idea here is, rather than have students walk into class and watch lectures, we replace this with what we call lessons. Lessons are interleaved sequences of videos and interactive exercises. So a student might watch a five-, seven-minute video and follow that with an interactive exercise. Think of this as the ultimate Socratization of education. You teach by asking questions. And this is a form of learning called active learning, and really promoted by a very early paper, in 1972, by Craik and Lockhart, where they said and discovered that learning and retention really relates strongly to the depth of mental processing. Students learn much better when they are interacting with the material.
The second idea is self-pacing. Now, when I went to a lecture hall, and if you were like me, by the fifth minute I would lose the professor. I wasn't all that smart, and I would be scrambling, taking notes, and then I would lose the lecture for the rest of the hour. Instead, wouldn't it be nice with online technologies, we offer videos and interactive engagements to students? They can hit the pause button. They can rewind the professor. Heck, they can even mute the professor. So this form of self-pacing can be very helpful to learning.
The third idea that we have is instant feedback. With instant feedback, the computer grades exercises. I mean, how else do you teach 150,000 students? Your computer is grading all the exercises. And we've all submitted homeworks, and your grades come back two weeks later, you've forgotten all about it. I don't think I've still received some of my homeworks from my undergraduate days. Some are never graded. So with instant feedback, students can try to apply answers. If they get it wrong, they can get instant feedback. They can try it again and try it again, and this really becomes much more engaging. They get the instant feedback, and this little green check mark that you see here is becoming somewhat of a cult symbol at edX. Learners are telling us that they go to bed at night dreaming of the green check mark. In fact, one of our learners who took the circuits course early last year, he then went on to take a software course from Berkeley at the end of the year, and this is what the learner had to say on our discussion board when he just started that course about the green check mark: "Oh god; have I missed you." When's the last time you've seen students posting comments like this about homework? My colleague Ed Bertschinger, who heads up the physics department at MIT, has this to say about instant feedback: He indicated that instant feedback turns teaching moments into learning outcomes.
The next big idea is gamification. You know, all learners engage really well with interactive videos and so on. You know, they would sit down and shoot alien spaceships all day long until they get it. So we applied these gamification techniques to learning, and we can build these online laboratories. How do you teach creativity? How do you teach design? We can do this through online labs and use computing power to build these online labs. So as this little video shows here, you can engage students much like they design with Legos. So here, the learners are building a circuit with Lego-like ease. And this can also be graded by the computer.
Fifth is peer learning. So here, we use discussion forums and discussions and Facebook-like interaction not as a distraction, but to really help students learn. Let me tell you a story. When we did our circuits course for the 155,000 students, I didn't sleep for three nights leading up to the launch of the course. I told my TAs, okay, 24/7, we're going to be up monitoring the forum, answering questions. They had answered questions for 100 students. How do you do that for 150,000? So one night I'm sitting up there, at 2 a.m. at night, and I think there's this question from a student from Pakistan, and he asked a question, and I said, okay, let me go and type up an answer, I don't type all that fast, and I begin typing up the answer, and before I can finish, another student from Egypt popped in with an answer, not quite right, so I'm fixing the answer, and before I can finish, a student from the U.S. had popped in with a different answer. And then I sat back, fascinated. Boom, boom, boom, boom, the students were discussing and interacting with each other, and by 4 a.m. that night, I'm totally fascinated, having this epiphany, and by 4 a.m. in the morning, they had discovered the right answer. And all I had to do was go and bless it, "Good answer." So this is absolutely amazing, where students are learning from each other, and they're telling us that they are learning by teaching.
Now this is all not just in the future. This is happening today. So we are applying these blended learning pilots in a number of universities and high schools around the world, from Tsinghua in China to the National University of Mongolia in Mongolia to Berkeley in California -- all over the world. And these kinds of technologies really help, the blended model can really help revolutionize education. It can also solve a practical problem of MOOCs, the business aspect. We can also license these MOOC courses to other universities, and therein lies a revenue model for MOOCs, where the university that licenses it with the professor can use these online courses like the next-generation textbook. They can use as much or as little as they like, and it becomes a tool in the teacher's arsenal.
Finally, I would like to have you dream with me for a little bit. I would like us to really reimagine education. We will have to move from lecture halls to e-spaces. We have to move from books to tablets like the Aakash in India or the Raspberry Pi, 20 dollars. The Aakash is 40 dollars. We have to move from bricks-and-mortar school buildings to digital dormitories.
But I think at the end of the day, I think we will still need one lecture hall in our universities. Otherwise, how else do we tell our grandchildren that your grandparents sat in that room in neat little rows like cornstalks and watched this professor at the end talk about content and, you know, you didn't even have a rewind button?
Thank you. Thank you. (Applause)