Had anyone asked edX President Anant Agarwal a year and a half ago what education would look like today, he would have responded, “It’s going to look exactly the same as it had 500 years ago.” Nothing had changed. That was, until 90,000 students signed up for MIT’s prototype MITx course, “Circuits and Electronics”—the first in the later-launched edX consortium.
“The last year has been the decade of innovation in education,” said Agarwal on a panel hosted by Suffolk University and WGBH Tuesday, called “College 2:0: The New Face of Higher Education.”
Hosted by Kara Miller, co-producer of WGBH’s Innovation Hub, the discussion brought together voices from across education, including Agarwal; Peter Hopkins, co-founder and president of e-learning company Big Think; Eric Mazur, the Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Harvard and Dean of Applied Physics; and Richard Miller, president of Olin College.
Following the success of MIT’s prototype course, the Institute partnered with Harvard to debut edX, a massive open online course platform that has more than doubled in size since launching last May. At the unveiling, then MIT President Susan Hockfield had said:
Today, in higher education, generally, you can choose to view this era as one of threatening change and unsettling volatility, or you can see it as a moment charged with the most exciting possibilities presented to educators in our lifetimes.
As Agarwal pointed out, students now live in a world where they can rewind, pause and mute lectures. Although exciting, there is still a level of engagement missing in online education.
“Education will not just be about what you know, it will be about what you can do and who you know,” Miller said. “Engaging people is key.”
At Olin, an institution arguably revolutionizing education, emphasis is placed on design-based learning. Students are given the opportunity to teach their own classes, some of which have attracted big-name Boston brands, and students are granted a say in how the school is run.
Although it sounds unorthodox, as Olin Professor Mark Chang—who’s currently on leave working as the director of product at edX—pointed out in a prior BostInno interview, “If our focus is on the students, on their success and using that focus to transform undergraduate education, how can we not include them in deciding their own fate?”
During the panel, Miller argued, “Education is so much more than knowledge.” And the comment received a nod of agreement from Mazur, a professor famous for the term “flipped classroom.”
“Any job that requires memorization or rote procedural problem solving will go away,” Mazur said. “Demands on the workforce will force universities to change.”
What professors need to think about are the skills people need in the 21st century, according to Mazur, who ran the audience through a simulated flipped classroom.
In a previous BostInno interview, Mazur described how he came to rely on peer-to-peer instruction, and turned the tables on the attendees. He flashed a question on the overhead screen, and told the crowd to select what they thought was the right answer using a mobile device. After all the responses were received, Mazur told everyone to pair off and defend their reasoning before he revealed the correct answer.
In the process of trying to convince one another of why they answered the question a certain way, attendees noticed holes in their logic. Mazur then posed the question again, and a flood of now-accurate answers started pouring in. Not only that, but the audience was engaged, not by the expert in the front of the room, but by their peers.
“See how easy it is to reawaken the curiosity of the human mind,” Mazur said, after the exercise was over. “If I had just told you the answer, you wouldn’t have gotten as excited.”
That level of engagement is what Mazur argues is missing from online education.
“Rather than focus on the content and the delivery of the content, we should focus on skills and the delivery of the projects,” Mazur said.
Hopkins, a Harvard alum, acknowledged his alma mater will need to prove they are making the on-campus experience more personalized.
The task won’t be one just for Harvard, however; every school will need to define and defend their value proposition to prove they are still worth paying the average $27,000 in student loan debt for.
Whether educators agree on-campus, skills-based learning is the way to go, or online education is the way to go, what did appear to be Tuesday’s consensus is that traditional education is flawed.
Can students be motivated by someone they’re not meeting, however? Will employers ever take online learning seriously? Do the benefits of online learning outweigh the downsides? That, moving forward, will be what companies like edX and Big Think need to find the answers for.
To hear the entire conversation, be sure to tune into the Innovation Hub, which will be airing the show on June 22.