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edX in the Community College: The MassBay Experience

A Q&A with Lynn Hunter, Dean of eLearning, MassBay Community College with comments from Anant Agarwal, President, edX

Lynn Hunter

MassBay Community College is one of two Boston-area community colleges (the other being Bunker Hill Community College) that have entered into partnerships with edX to explore the integration of edX curricula and materials into community college courses and programs. During the Spring 2013 Semester (January-May), MassBay students will be able to take CS 270-750, a three-credit hour course on Practical Python Programming that leverages course materials and instructional tools that are developed at MIT and made available via the edX-MITx 6.00x Introduction to Computer Science and Programming course.

edX, a leading online education initiative founded in 2012 by Harvard University and MIT, is being joined by numerous institutions and learning organizations to investigate and advance the potential for online learning in many diverse contexts around the world. The edX partnership with MassBay and Bunker Hill community colleges is being supported in part by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Mary Grush: What is the instructional model you are testing with edX?

Lynn Hunter: As part of our pilot under the grant, we are offering a blended hybrid course [CS 270-750], in which roughly half of the instruction will be online and half in the classroom. So it's about a fifty-fifty split: We are using edX course materials and online virtual tools; and we're facilitating in-class sessions to ensure that students master the material they are presented with online.

Grush: Are you using a flipped classroom approach?

Hunter: Yes, it is a flipped classroom model, and we are adding that extra component of it being a blended hybrid course with reduced seat time, so that the student benefits in multiple ways: They don't have to be in class on campus as often, and when they do come to class their time is spent working on problems that they have been exposed to and are learning about in the online environment.

Grush: At MassBay, of course you have offered blended learning experiences for some time now. What specifically are you examining in this pilot with edX?

Hunter: One of our main goals is to explore how world-class materials developed at an elite institution can be used in a community college environment, and to bring those materials and tools to students while facilitating the learning process in the classroom locally with an expert teacher. Community colleges are known for being teaching institutions, so by incorporating edX materials [in this case, materials developed at MIT, a renowned teaching and research institution] into our course, we are merging some of the best of both worlds.

In this course our students have access to high-quality edX materials that come to us free of charge--in many cases with very high production values--while at the same time being coached and instructed in person by one of our own seasoned instructors in the course subject.

Grush: I know you are really at the beginning of your work with the pilot, but at this point, how would you further characterize what the participants are trying to find out from your work with edX?

Hunter: I think we're all striving to answer the question: How do we use these materials and models to best serve our students and to maximize the learning experiences for our students?

Grush: What do you anticipate might come out as a highlight or key benefit of incorporating edX in community college courses?

Hunter: In the case of community colleges, of course we have a very diverse learner population. I think that [incorporating edX] puts more tools in the faculty's hands--tools that they can then use as a means to their own ends in constructing learning environments for students.

Grush: Generally, we hear a lot about the high cost to students of textbooks and course materials in more traditional courses. With the models you are exploring that use edX, could there be a benefit to the students just in terms of the cost of taking a course?

Hunter: Yes, there can be. For example, in our CS 270-750 course, there is no required textbook. And it is based on an MITx course, which, as it was developed originally, requires no specific textbook. Our instructor, and I think one of the instructors at MITx, have recommended one or more Open Education Resource textbooks. So, students in our course at MassBay won't have to pay for a textbook--anyone can view the OER online for free.

Grush: Do you feel that community colleges in general offer a particularly appropriate focal point for this type of experiment?

Hunter: Yes, in the sense that access is one of the main parts of a community college mission of access and student success. Certainly this type of project is an illustration and example of creating access to materials and courseware that might be otherwise unavailable to our students.

Grush: Beyond the three credits students will earn from MassBay for taking the CS 270-750 course, will they receive any other form of credential for taking the course through edX?

Hunter: Students who complete requirements specific to MITx will receive a certificate of completion from MITx for the course, so that's an added opportunity for students who wish to earn the certificate of completion directly from MITx as well as the three credits from MassBay.

Grush: Is this the first instance of an institution offering the opportunity to earn credits in this manner?

Hunter: Certainly at a community college, yes.

Grush: Do you expect to make plans to continue this into the Fall 2013 time frame?

Hunter: The pilot project is specific to this one course. We will of course be very eager to see the results: the reaction from our students about their experience going through the course and what it has meant to them; and the experience of the faculty member. Then we will look at what comes next.

edX: Community College Initiatives

Perspectives and comments from Anant Agarwal, President, edX

"The courses offered on the edX platform provide a great resource to community colleges throughout the country. edX features the some of the best courses from the best faculty at the best institutions of higher education. Combine this with the expertise in teaching and learning at the community college level and we see an unbelievable opportunity for more blended learning utilizing our courses. Blended formats have advantages for all sorts of institutions. But they are especially helpful for community colleges where students often commute significant distances and class time is especially valuable. The lectures are delivered via video and the class time is devoted to group activities or one-on-one interactions between the student and faculty.

"We are in an experimental phase and we encourage faculty and administrations to leverage edX content in creative ways. Not all institutions, including community colleges, will use the courses in the same way. The results of our experiment with MassBay and Bunker Hill community colleges will provide some direction but each institution should adapt their offerings in ways that provide the best outcomes for their specific communities. Through completing edX course content, we hope that community college students will realize potential opportunities for further education--or careers they had not considered--due to their positive experience in the course.

"Since the announcement of the arrangement with MassBay Community College and Bunker Hill Community College, edX has received many inquiries from other community colleges around the country. Our focus is on completing this initial pilot study, and to evaluate the opportunities for further work in this area. But leveraging the courses on the edX platform, the video lectures and digital laboratories, does not require a grant-based partnership. The content and platform are available freely to all users with an Internet connection who sign up for the courses. Adapting the videos, quizzes, and syllabus to the specific community college calendars requires effort but the ability to free faculty from time consuming lectures and allow them more creative interactions with their students we anticipate could provide dramatically improved outcomes."

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