Harvard offering free online classes to the public! Interesting idea.

One Course, 150,000 Students

Published: July 18, 2012

AT the May announcement of edX, the Harvard-M.I.T. partnership that will offer free online courses with a certificate of completion, Susan Hockfield, the president of M.I.T., declared: “Fasten your seat belts.” If anyone was ready for the ride — the $60 million venture aims to reach a billion people — it was Anant Agarwal, the director of M.I.T.’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Mr. Agarwal, named the first president of edX, describes himself as a “serial entrepreneur” who first went into business as a child in Mangalore, India, building coops for 40 chickens and selling their eggs. Start-ups still call to him: in 2005-6, he took time off from M.I.T. to create a semiconductor company. And in December, when M.I.T. decided to plunge into the world of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, with a new platform called MITx (now folded into edX), he came forward to teach the first offering, which ran March 5 to June 8 and enrolled over 150,000.

How did you come to teach the first course?

I just backed into it. M.I.T. asked me to look for a teacher for the MITx prototype course. I talked to some of my colleagues, who are much better teachers than I am, but I couldn’t get anyone to agree to do it. Many of them said it couldn’t be done in three months. But I’m really impatient, I like to get things done, and I’ve started enough companies to know that you can do things that big companies wouldn’t think was possible.

The debut course was “Circuits and Electronics.” Why that one?

It was not my first choice at all. A computer science or digital course would have made more sense, but “Circuits” was something I could teach. It’s one of the hardest courses at M.I.T. You need differential equations and calculus, and we had to develop online simulated laboratories.

We’re starting slowly, with four to six courses in the fall and maybe a dozen in the spring. We hope to offer computer science, biology, math, physics, public health, history and more.

Did you expect so much demand?

With no marketing dollars, I thought we might get 200 students. When we posted on the Web site that we were taking registration and the course would start in March, my colleague Piotr Mitros called and said, “We’re getting 10,000 registrations a day.” I fell off my seat and said, “Piotr, are you sure you’ve got the decimal point right?” My most fearful moment was when we launched the course. I worried that the system couldn’t handle it, and would keel over and die.

Granted, there are no papers to grade, and assignments aren’t free-form, but how does one professor handle so many students?

We had four teaching assistants, and my initial plan was that they would spend a lot of time on the discussion forum, answering questions. One night in the early days, I was on the forum at 2 a.m. when I saw a student ask a question, and I was typing my answer when I discovered that another student had typed an answer before I could. It was in the right direction, but not quite there, so I thought I could modify it, but then some other student jumped in with the right answer. It was fascinating to see how quickly students were helping each other. All we had to do was go in and say that it was a good answer. I actually instructed the T.A.’s not to answer so quickly, to let students work for an hour or two, and by and large they find the answers.

The discussion forum has many interesting features, like karma points. If someone posts a question, and another student votes it up, which is like “liking” the question, the student who posted it gets karma points. Or if a staff member checks an answer as correct, the student gets a big bonus of points. If you get a large number of karma points, you get some of the privileges of an instructor, like closing down a discussion when people have come to the right answer.

How does this all work with a global enrollment?

It’s been amazing. You’d see someone post in Brazil looking for other students in Brazil so they could meet and have a study group at a coffee shop. Facebook sites for the course popped up, not all in English. There are people in Tunisia, Pakistan, New Zealand, Latin America. And a professor in Mongolia has a group of students taking the course. He got them all a little laboratory kit, so they’re doing the experiments live along with the course.

Most students who register for MOOCs don’t complete the course. Of the 154,763 who registered for “Circuits and Electronics,” fewer than half even got as far as looking at the first problem set, and only 7,157 passed the course. What do you make of that?

A large number of the students who sign up for MOOCs are browsing, to see what it’s like. They might not have the right background for the course. They might just do a little bit of the coursework. Our course was M.I.T.-hard and needed a very, very solid background. Other students just don’t have time to do the weekly assignments. One thing we’re thinking of is to offer multiple versions of the course, one that would last a semester and one that could stretch over a year. That would help some people complete.

EdX operates under an honor code, with no way to verify that the student who registered is the one doing the work. Is that likely to change?

It’s quite possible employers would be happy with an honor certificate. We’re looking at various methods of proctoring. We have talked about people going to centers to take exams. There are also companies that use the cameras inside a laptop or iPad to watch you and everything else that’s happening in the room while you take an exam, and that may be more scalable.

So what is the future of edX?

When there are more courses, I could imagine people taking several of them, and putting them together, getting the certificates, and using it something like a diploma. I think the courses will get better and better, but we don’t know how they’ll be used.

And because we will have all this data on how students actually use our materials, there are opportunities for research on learning. We can watch how many attempts students made before they got an exercise right, and if they got it wrong, what they used to try to find a solution. Did they go to the textbook, go back and watch the video, go to the forum and post a question?

Our goal is to change the world through education.

This interview has been edited and condensed.



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