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edX: Making Education Better, Stronger, and Faster Than It Was Before

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

If Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man, needed a higher education, he certainly would sign up for edX, the new 60 million dollar, collaborative learning platform proposed by Harvard and MIT. In much the same way that Austin’s recreation as a technology-enhanced human being changed the very notion of human potential, edX promises to "upend higher education as we know it" (Weigel, 3 May, 2012). While it was impossible to significantly change Steve Austin once he had been reassembled, there are no such constraints surrounding edX. In fact, the very intention of the initiative is to use the platform as a vehicle for learning about technology-enhanced education and applying those findings to make education as a whole better, stronger, and faster than it was before.

I have recently written about MITx, Coursera, and Udacity as "Education Road Warriors," all with mighty ambitions to save the world through their online course offerings, but all lacking an ability to teach innovative thinking through their platforms, and thus all being unable to really change the future of education. edX, is taking a different approach to changing the world through online education – they are going to study it and learn from it as they try to change it. Just like those other efforts mentioned, those behind edX are ambitiously planning to offer free education to anyone around the world who has an Internet connection, hoping to eventually reach one billion people.

Where edX differs from previous efforts is in their transparent, upfront intention to actively conduct research on their courses and learners and to apply the information that they gain to change not only their online offerings, but all of education. At the press conference to announce the project, Anant Agarwal, edX president and MIT Computer Science professor, Harvard University President Drew Faust, and MIT President Susan Hockfield discussed their ambitious plans for changing the future of higher education:


Video streaming by Ustream
On-campus research will help researchers at MIT and Harvard learn more about teaching and learning online and apply what they find to enhancing how they teach their residential students and to education in general. As Faust states in the video, they plan to "increase access to education and strengthen teaching and learning." (http://www.edxonline.org/) Those behind edX are planning a formal research effort to support their global education effort, but what are they likely to learn? Here are five possible research avenues for the project and what they are likely to find.

What edX Will Teach Us About E-learning and Higher Ed
While the formal research agenda behind edX is currently unavailable, here are five things that the researchers at MIT and Harvard are likely to find through their research into the ways in which technology can enhance higher education.

  1. Students like learning with technology – The most obvious, but probably most important, finding will be that students prefer to learn basic content asynchronously outside of the classroom. This is not news to former Stanford University professor and Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun who reported that his students stopped attending class in person at Stanford when he started posting videos of his lectures online for his hugely popular artificial intelligence course (Marquis, 2012). The implications for the formalization of this discovery will be an opening of the floodgates for recorded content in higher education and more "flipping" of the university classroom. It makes sense for all parties. If students prefer to pause and rewind their professors while they absorb content in the academic quad, their dorm rooms, or wherever else strikes their fancy, why not let them? On the other hand, allowing professors to record the core content of their lectures will free them to pursue other avenues in classes such as research and other activities that actively engage students with the content.
     
  2. Gamification works – If edX really reaches out to incorporate courses from other universities, they will eventually start researching game-based courses. When they do, they are likely to find that, not only are these classes more engaging and that students like them, but also that they are extremely effective vehicles for learning. Further, unlike other “canned content,” game-based online education has a greater potential to support innovative thinking, because the medium is designed to create an adaptive user experience. Games can be programmed to present learners with problems and require innovate solutions in order to progress through the program.
     
  3. Peer-enabled learning is very effective – As MIT president Susan Hockfield explained during the edX press conference, during the MITx initial course offering, Circuits and Electronics, spontaneous social networks formed among the 120,000 participants that allowed students to engage with each other and demonstrate a surprising tendency for peer tutoring. This will ultimately prove to be the most surprising finding of the edX research as it will reveal that a new paradigm for education is emerging that parallels the current trend towards social construction of knowledge demonstrated through Wikipedia. This concept could eventually lead to a self-sustaining model for higher education in which students take ownership of helping to teach their peers (Marquis, 1 May, 2012).
     
  4. Time is a variable – In a post-industrial society there is no need for education to be constrained to a set duration of time. The edX research should reveal that students all work at different paces and learn material well in different sequences. Technologically-enhanced learning can make education intimately individualized. Students can progress through individual courses or even their entire education careers at different paces if the paradigm of education changes in a way which allows this. edX may reveal that breaking free of the Pavlovian education mentality makes learning more enjoyable and effective for everyone.
     
  5. Teaching innovation isn’t easy – While the edX website states "It will move beyond the standard model of online education that relies on watching video content and will offer an interactive experience for students," (edX FAQ) that remains to be seen. With the ambitious goal of reaching 1 billion learners, it is going to be extremely challenging for edX to provide an interactive experience for all of them. The key to an effort like this, and my main criticism of the efforts that have come before it, is that mass-produced education cannot, by definition teach innovation. There is hope that, if the peer tutoring model becomes embedded in the edX model, that there will be potential for having students engage in the kinds of experiences that foster creative thinking and innovation. On the surface, however, it is theoretically impossible to provide this kind of experience to a massive number of users simultaneously.
     

Research Conclusions
These five points have been entirely based on conjecture about what the researchers at MIT and Harvard will be looking for and what they are likely to find if they ask the right questions. I am more hopeful about this effort than I am about MITx, Coursera, and Udacity because of the preconception that edX is not a finished product, but rather a vehicle for learning as much as for teaching. In an age of rapid technological change, beginning from the point of knowing that you will need to learn from your efforts is a very sound way to begin a project of this ambition. Bravo!