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MITx and the (Automated) Future of Higher Education

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

A recent article in The Guardian, by Matthew Draycott, an entrepreneur and lecturer at the Center for Entrepreneurial Learning at Glyndŵr University in Wrexham, UK, discussed the role of "disruptive technologies" in the changing landscape of higher education. In particular, he examined the potential for new technology-mediated education platforms, such as MITx, to fundamentally change higher education. Specifically, he looked at MIT’s recent launch of a fully automated free online course. This course is fully accredited and is open to anyone who wishes to make the effort, providing learners with an MIT branded certificate (BBC News, 13 Feb., 2012). MIT has been careful to state that these free online courses are of the same quality as their usual paid classes – Draycott believes that this is a game-changing event that could dramatically affect the future of higher education by providing prestigious college-level courses for free. If he is right, the next big move to reduce the cost of higher education could be the "teacherless classroom." Is that really a possibility?

What Does Automated Education Look Like?
The first MITx course, Circuits and Electronics, is the initial class in the undergraduate electronics engineering and electrical engineering and computer science curriculums and covers much of the basics of electrical engineering. The on-campus version includes lab exercises as well as the traditional classroom experience (MITx, Circuits & Electronics 6.002x).

What sets the MITx offering apart from other online courses (except those from Udacity) is that it is completely free, open to anyone, anywhere in the world, requires no pre-requisites or application, and is largely automated. Interested students just sign up and begin taking the class. What is important for this discussion of the automated classroom is the fact that all course activities are evaluated by a machine. The FAQ for the course states, "MITx courses will use automated technologies to check student work including practice exercises, homework assignments, labs and exams" (MITx, FAQ).

Beyond that change from the usual online education model, the MITx courses appear fairly standard. The basic plan for the course, according to the MITx Faq is:
"Students taking 6.002x will have weekly video lectures, readings from the textbook, practice exercises and homework; design and laboratory exercises are also significant components of the course. The course will also provide additional tutorial material. There will be a midterm and a final exam. An interactive laboratory playground will also be made available for students to experiment creatively."

"In general, for any given week, learners are expected to work through a couple of lecture sequences containing a few videos (each 5 to 10 minutes in length) and a few interactive practice exercises. Learners can also read appropriate parts of the textbook linked to the videos. Lab and homework exercises will round out the week. Tutorials are also provided as additional reference material" (MITx, FAQ).

Beyond the discussion forums that accompany the class, the archiving of videos and the automated review of exercises and tests open the possibility for the courses to eventually become almost entirely automated. With one or two TAs to respond to questions in the forums, future offerings of MITx classes could happen entirely without the need for a faculty member. This is where the truly revolutionary impact of the MITx model could be felt in terms of educational accessibility and cost.

Benefits
There are several benefits to a large-scale implementation of an automated online education model:

  • Cost – After the initial development costs (which are still substantial), courses such as those offered through MITx can be free or provided at incredibly reduced costs. The potential exists to have a single course which serves hundreds, or even thousands of individuals, facilitated by a single, modestly paid TA or even a more expensive faculty member.  In fact, at a very modest per pupil cost, programs such as this could easily be self-sustaining and even profitable.
  • Scalability – Because a computer will be doing all of the (for humans) time-intensive work of grading, this project is almost infinitely scalable. It is only practically limited by the bandwidth constraints of the delivering institution and the need for someone to moderate online discussions. Over the course of time, even those limitations could be overcome. The discussion facilitator issue could eventually be addressed as online conversations and answers are archived and indexed, allowing the computer to “answer” questions posed by students. 
  • Freedom from time constraints – One thing that neither MITx nor Udacity currently do is liberate their students from the constraints of a fixed schedule. If these classes can eventually become fully automated, they could easily be offered on a rolling basis, with students jumping in and out of online discussions, potentially even working to mentor new enrollees. Moving beyond a fixed schedule would allow an even wider array of learners to participate at their own pace.
  • Universal availability – These classes can be accessed by anyone, anywhere in the world, and asynchronously, so actual local time becomes irrelevant. Given sufficient connectivity, these courses can help to bridge the Digital Divide by providing access to rich material for people who historically have lacked that access. Ultimately, this could help to create a more equitable global society comprised of many new and exciting ways of viewing the world and thus offering new insight into the ways things work, could work, and should work. Efforts like MITx invite a wider audience to participate in the discourse on specific topics and the state of the world in general.

These benefits could serve to bridge the Digital Divide for a large number of previously disenfranchised learners so long as they have the ability, equipment, and connectivity necessary to participate in the classes. That connectivity is, however, is just one significant issue.

Issues
The benefits outlined above are largely balanced out by some fairly significant problems with the model.

  • Connectivity – The Digital Divide cannot be crossed unless people have the tools necessary to build their own bridges. Simply put, if an individual lacks a computer or compatible portable device, Internet connectivity, or even electricity, they cannot use free online educational resources, regardless of how groundbreaking  and well-designed those assets are. In order to take advantage of innovative educational opportunities such as MITx, people must be able to access and use them. This is still a significant obstacle both globally and in the U.S.
  • Limited subject matter – While learning computer programming on Udacity, mathematics via the Khan Academy, or electronic engineering through MITx, are useful and powerful opportunities to build a knowledge base, there are some subjects that simply do not lend themselves to an entirely automated teaching format. Computers, no matter how advanced, cannot adequately score questions that call for the learner to generate an opinion, produce a product for a real client, or otherwise express learning in new and innovative ways such as through the production of a video or Twitter stream. Perhaps someday, but not in the immediately foreseeable future.
  • Innovative thinking – In the same vein, fully automated courses cannot, by definition, teach an individual to be an innovator. An automated curriculum must be a standardized curriculum, and thus has no room for the flexibility and customizability that are needed to promote creative thinking. That is not to say that they cannot be an important part of helping foster innovation, as they provide skills and knowledge of tools which can be used in innovative ways, but they must be supplemented with other types of learning to truly support the development of individuals who can contribute to the advancement of society.
  • No Prerequisites – The MITx model makes courses completely open to anyone interested regardless of background knowledge. While some may view this as a problem with the model, it is most likely that those who are not "qualified" or able to do the coursework will simply not try, or will opt out after a session or two. The positive flipside of this is that it allows people who may not have formal qualifications, but that may nonetheless have aptitude in a subject, to discover that they really can learn something new and important. Even better, there is no cost to them, and little to no cost to the institution, for them to make this self-discovery.

Coming Soon to a Computer near You?
Part of the development of the MITX platform is the distribution of the infrastructure for the courses to any educational institution that is interested in using it (MITx, FAQ). If the tools are simple enough to use, there could be a rapid growth in automated courses as long as the material is adaptable to such a format. It is, however, unlikely that the tools will be able to allow for automation of certain types of classes, particularly those that require innovative thinking and creativity. For those, you will still have to physically attend a class, or participate in a more traditional online format. Even given that caveat, this is an encouraging sign that the high costs of higher education could be working themselves into some sort of equilibrium through this and other exciting free options.

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