Fascinating chat last night with a guy who is possibly the most influential person in MOOCland – Anant Agarwal. There are several things that mark Anant out from the pack. First he’s not overly protective about the Anglo-Saxon model of Higher Education (first degree in India), second he’s a high level academic, reseracher and teacher, third he’s a serious computer and AI guy, fourth he’s passionate about the democratisation of learning through MOOCs , as well as improving teaching and learning on campus. He’s also no slouch on business and a very nice person. He’s rounded.
Hype is a good thing
He describes EdX as an ‘online learning destination’. This is clever – not a platform, not a library of courses, not a business but a ‘destination’, one that is agile and will change as time progresses. Then the killer line ‘Hype is a good thing’. Why do you think sports and pop music is so popular and successful – it hypes - for hyoe read marketing. That’s why every academic leader on the planet knows about MOOCs, that’s why politicians who shape educational policy know about MOOCs. It’s made us think.
EdX, being an early entrant, now has a strong presence, not only in the US but also China, Japan, France and the Middle East. It’s a global push.
With 133 courses and 1.8 million learners he’s positive about the MOOC influence on his own organisation MIT, describing a MIT MOOC that needed differential maths but still attracted 155,000 students, more than attended MIT in the whole of its history. EdX's most recent MOOC attracted 180,000, two weeks ago and one on Paul’s letters 30,000. He reminds us that MOOCs are still Massive, still Open, still Online and still Courses. And he is adamant that it’s also improving the quality of teaching and learning on the MIT campus.
Flipped MOOC successes
Solid State Chemistry was a landmark course for him, as it was used as a flipped classroom, with exposition in your own time and classroom for problem solving – the results, he says, were staggering. Five weeks into the term every freshman gets a flag letter, designed to buck up those who are starting to flag on the course. One year ago, before the flipped classroom it was 29, this year it was 2. At San Hose State University, in another flipped MOOC experiment, failure rates dropped from 41% to 9%. He describes a Community College teacher, Jamie Heureux, who took a MOOC on Python (coding not snakes) and now uses it to deliver a Python course in her own college Bunker Hill, in Boston, something that would never have happened withput the MOOC. For him a MOOC is just a different modality on the campus. We have to recognise where technology is today and match our pedagogy to that technology.
He has no truck with those who think MOOCs lack a serious pedagogy. Try a few, he says. There’s rarely hour long lectures but sequenced learning and often sophisticated assignments, coding tools, virtual labs (where for example you can manipulate gene sequences) and a host of other techniques, unknown in many universities. Discussion forums are being brought closer to the content a la Futurelearn. Data is being used to judge optimal attention spans when watching video. At present it stands at 6 minutes before cognitive overload and attention drift takes its toll. Interestingly as an AI guy, he was very positive about the potential effect algorithmic AI will have on MOOCs and learning. This he saw as the ‘quantum leap’ we’ve been waiting for and confirmed that EdX are doing this on a small scale but will be doing a lot more. If they get it right, we have a good part of the solution to personalised tutoring. My own organisation UFI (University for Industry) has funded an AI, adaptive-led MOOC on Functional Maths that takes exactly this approach. We've chosen EdX for these seven reasons.
We both laughed at this. Universities have been around for many centuries and still haven’t found the solution to this, so why the immediate pressure on MOOCs. At least MOOC provides are coming up with a range of novel models, on investments (not-for-profit, government, sponsorship. private) through to charging for (courses, materials, completion, exams) and increasing brand capital and students coming to your university. EdX are already offering paid for courses in topics such as Big Data, as well as licensing out their content and sharing the royalties with the originators of the course. It’s a typical fermium path – free at point of delivery but look for revenues from higher level services. The primary market drives the secondary.
He agreed with me that MOOCs have moved beyond HE into vocational learning (VOOCs), high school learning (HOOCs), corporates, charities and CPD. MOOCs have already ‘run the gamut’ of subjects and educational domains. Universities, he said, have been around for over 900 years, MOOCs only a few years but look at how much innovation has been achieved already. He was modest but knowledgeable and convincing, and the excellent papers just published by MIT and Harvard on MOOCs, looking at real data, with balanced analysis, make a welcome change from the surface debate full of sneering suspicion that we get in the UK.
He asked if I had watched the SuperBowl last night, I said “no I was watching Andy Murray, single-handedly beat the USA in the Davis Cup. We still have a chance, albeit rather slim!