Ed Tech Trends | CT 2014 Coverage

edX CEO: 'It Is Pathetic That the Education System Has Not Changed in Hundreds of Years'

Anant Agarwal, CEO of the nonprofit MOOC platform provider edX, had some harsh words for traditional education, saying it's "pathetic" that classrooms today still look like the did decades ago. And, undaunted by MOOC critics, Agarwal highlighted the potential he sees for MOOCs in a keynote address at the Campus Technology conference yesterday.

In just a few years, massive open online courses have already been through a multiple phases of the Gartner "hype cycle." But Anant Agarwal, CEO of the nonprofit MOOC platform provider edX, remains undaunted. One of edX's goals was to increase access to education, and by all accounts it has succeeded. By opening up its platform to others, it has allowed universities and governments in many countries to expand its reach. "It is a federated, decentralized approach to spread education around the world," Agarwal told attendees of the Campus Technology annual conference in a keynote speech yesterday.

Rather than begin a broader philosophical discussion about the role of MOOCs in higher education, Agarwal chose to focus on what edX has been doing and its potential for using big data to improve teaching and learning outcomes, both online and in blended learning environments.

edX was launched in 2012 with seed funding from MIT and Harvard. Agarwal, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, taught the first edX course on circuits and electronics. It drew 155,000 students from 162 countries.

He tried to put those numbers in perspective to stress the impact edX has already had. "That 155,000 figure is more than the total number of alumni of MIT in history," he said. The 7,200 who passed the rigorous course are more than the total number of students he will ever teach in his career at MIT, he said. "From a lark two and a half years ago, it is becoming a movement."

There has been handwringing in the press that MOOCs are useless because they have only 5 percent pass rates, he said. But when students pay a fee for ID-verified certifications, the pass rate is closer to 60 percent, he said.

Initially Agarwal had some harsh words for the overall stasis and failure to adapt to technological change in education overall. He showed a photo of an MIT classroom from 60 years ago. "What is interesting about this photo is that nothing has changed." Other industries have been transformed, and learners have changed, but education hasn't changed, he said. "It is pathetic that the education system has not changed in hundreds of years."

Beyond reaching more learners around the globe, he said one promising idea is to use the platform to blend the best of online and in-person education. He noted that San Jose State University has taught the circuits and electronics course in a blended environment four times and has seen the failure rate drop from around 40 percent to 4 percent. Now several schools in the California State University system are adopting the same approach.

MIT has been one of the most aggressive universities in adopting blended learning, he said. There are 23 blended learning classes involving 2,800 students on campus.

The next step is to use all the data being gathered from the edX platform to study how people learn.

In the space of a few years edX has amassed more than 3 billion records. Agarwal said he wants to use the data to learn how students learn in order to continuously re-engineer the platform in much the same way that Google tweaks its services. "We have terabytes of data, including students working on problems," he said. "We know they got it wrong four times and right the fifth. We can see what they did in between the fourth and fifth try. We know which parts contribute to successful outcomes."

In the Q&A session, one attendee asked Agarwal what MIT would do if a student who had earned an edX MOOC certificate showed up as a freshman on campus. Would they have to retake the class in person? He said that hypothetical situation is actually happening, as a few students who took the MOOC course are now on campus and MIT is deciding how to approach the situation. His thought is that they should just complete the physical lab required in the campus course that isn't in the MOOC, but that they shouldn't have to retake the whole course.

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