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5 Ways edX Could Change Education

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

After the initial announcement of Harvard and MIT’s collaborative learning platform, edX, earlier this year, I speculated that it might have several things to teach the world about e-learning and education in general. The possible research contributions of edX to education that I proposed at the time were: students like learning with technology; gamification works; peer-enabled learning is effective; time should be a variable in learning not a constant; and that teaching innovation isn’t easy. Chronicle reporter Marc Parry recently visited the edX office on the MIT campus and uncovered the actual facts behind the developing research agenda at edX. Here is a look at what the researchers at MIT and Harvard intend to investigate and an evaluation of the evolving edX agenda.

1. Engaging Alumni in New Ways
In one MIT computer science class, there were so many participants and code to evaluate, that instructors simply could not keep up with the workload. Their solution was to crowdsource the grading to a mixture of computers, instructors, and MIT alumni (Parry).  This method of grading has two outcomes: 1) it gets the job done, and 2) it exposes student work to potential employers. Future efforts would adopt this model for edX courses and might include having alumni moderate online discussion forums.

Some rather significant flaws exist with this model. First, is that it would seem to be against student privacy rights to have outsiders evaluating their work. Particularly if there are names attached to the submissions. Perhaps there is a waiver being used to supersede student rights or work is evaluated anonymously? The official policy is unclear at this time. Additionally, questions need to be answered regarding how alumni are qualified to evaluate the work, and what kind of training they are receiving in doing the job. Beyond these issues, this is a truly innovative idea that works at many levels. Involving alumni in the academic process is always a challenge for institutions, and this model overcomes that hurdle. Deeper alumni engagement yields greater institutional support, as well as the previously mentioned enhancement of future employment opportunities for current students. If the legal issues with this strategy have been adequately dealt with, this is a great advancement for higher education on multiple fronts.

2. Reinventing Hybrid Teaching
A recent MIT graduate adapted some of the content from an edX course on circuits and electronics to teach a flipped class to Mongolian high school students (Parry) . This innovative effort utilized online videos and interactive exercises from the free edX course, as well as face-to-face instruction and mentoring from the MIT grad, to adapt the content to the appropriate grade level and spread the learning to a new audience in a hybrid format.

No one anticipated that edX content would trickle down to the high school level. This is a development that could lead to a revolution in public education, not just higher ed. Hybrid pedagogy is the future of education and this single event of adapting college-level MOOC content to high school could represent a watershed moment in educational change. While most K-12 teachers do not have the time to adapt an entire course to their students, this model of pulling specific chunks and features into the K-12 classroom allows teachers to remix their curriculums in new and exciting ways that not only enhance the immediate educational experience, but also expose students to college level content. This exposure can help demystify the university experience and interest students in pursuing higher education.

3. Gamifying Labs
One of the innovations currently in the works at edX is the creation of a vast library of virtual electronic "parts" that students can assemble digitally to create new virtual items (Parry). While the assortment is currently limited to circuits, there are plans to expand the library to include the parts necessary to build computers (virtually), cell phones, bridges, and anything else that could be designed and assembled in the real world at much greater cost.

The developers at edX are effectively creating a virtual sandbox in which learners can play with a variety of simulated tools to create their own, working prototypes of new devices and inventions. If these tools are also free and easily used at various levels, they will provide one more avenue in which the edX tools can be adapted to different education levels and various contexts to help other educators remix their curriculums.

4. Studying the Human Mind
Because edX is a research project with participants expected to number in the millions – it provides a fertile ground for investigating the ways in which students learn and interact (Parry). The edX system is capable of tracking everything that a student does so that progress can be charted and new ways of supporting learning and retention can be tried and evaluated.

If there are millions of users and their information and experiences are captured in such a way that they are readily accessible to researchers, edX could provide a massive repository of data for understanding the ways in which online education works and can be enhanced.

5. Changing MIT
Some MIT courses have opened up to allow students to take edX classes in place of their on-campus equivalents. The results have been very positive thus far (Parry). Students report that they enjoy the self-paced, flexible nature of the courses and that they find online tests less stressful than the traditional model.  Students at MIT want to take more online classes as a result of the experience.
This is one more example of the push towards a hybrid model of higher education that is poised to become the dominant method of learning in the future. As edX director Anant Agarwal is quoted in the article, "Ten years from now most of our classes will be using blended learning." (Parry). edX might just be speeding up the process.

Looking Ahead
While I am somewhat disappointed that the actual edX research agenda did not incorporate more of the questions that I thought were important, the actual focus of the program is poised to make valuable contributions to higher education. What is most surprising about the implementation of edX so far is that it is having an impact outside of higher education. If the content is adaptable to K-12 learning, this program has the potential to reach a far greater audience than was initially anticipated. Keep up the good work edX. And for all the K-12 teachers reading this, go give edX a look. You might find something that will help your own teaching.