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Duflo, Lander, Lewin to lead spring-semester MITx courses

EdX takes stock of last semester’s MITx courses; data will be used to improve education online and in the classroom.
Esther Duflo, Eric Lander and Walter Lewin
Esther Duflo, Eric Lander and Walter Lewin
Photos: Peter Tenzer; Rick Friedman; Dominick Reuter

MIT professors Esther Duflo, Eric Lander and Walter Lewin will lead three new MITx courses this spring, joining three existing MITx courses that will be offered again this semester.

The new MITx courses were announced recently by edX, the free online-education platform created last May by MIT and Harvard University. EdX also said that courses on its platform have now attracted more than 600,000 registrants from around the world.

In October, edX expanded to include a new partner, the University of California at Berkeley; since then, the University of Texas System, Georgetown University and Wellesley College have joined the edX platform.

This spring, there will be 15 new courses on edX — including the first offerings in the humanities and social sciences — from MITx, HarvardX and BerkeleyX, in addition to reprises of 10 existing courses from these three universities.

MITx’s new courses this semester are 7.00x (Introduction to Biology: “The Secret of Life”), led by Lander; 8.02x (Electricity and Magnetism), led by Lewin; and 14.73x (The Challenges of Global Poverty), led by Duflo.

Lander, a professor of biology and director of the Broad Institute — who for the past 20 years has taught MIT’s freshman biology course, which is taken by more than half of all MIT students — will tailor the edX version of the course to appeal to an online audience. In addition to videos of classroom lectures, edX learners can use a variety of interactive features, including a three-dimensional molecule viewer and a gene-explorer tool. Students may also participate in community-based contests and milestone-based prizes to encourage learning.

In 14.73x — based on an MIT course that involves active discussion groups — Duflo, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics, will encourage students to engage with others from around the world on the course’s discussion forum. Students will watch video lectures, some featuring brand-new material, and deepen their understanding with challenging homework assignments.

And in 8.02x, students can watch Lewin’s dramatic classroom demonstrations, interspersed with interactive questions, as well as related animations and simulations.

“E-learning is a revolution comparable to the invention of the printing press,” says Lewin, a professor emeritus of physics whose lectures have reached millions of viewers on YouTube and MIT’s OpenCourseWare. “People who would never ever have the opportunity to get a decent education will be able to get one at any level … in five to 10 years, we could reach out to at least a billion people.”

Local connections

EdX officials have been in conversation with the cities of Boston and Cambridge about creating mechanisms for residents to most effectively access the educational curriculum. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino announced BostonX — which will supplement edX offerings by providing in-person support and job-training services in community centers — in his State of the City address on Tuesday night.

In Cambridge, exploratory discussions with Mayor Henrietta Davis have centered on offerings in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), as well as the possibility of providing instruction in English as a Second Language.

Last semester’s results

Instructors from last fall’s three MITx classes — all of which will be offered again this spring — are now evaluating their experiences with the edX platform and hoping to develop new tools to improve student learning, both online and in the classroom.

“The experiment continues to go well,” says Anant Agarwal, president of edX and a professor of computer science and engineering at MIT. “We introduced a number of new technologies … and we’re also learning about best practices, like regular communication with students over email. We’ll be looking at all the data to see how things went.”

While there is much data still to be crunched, some results from students’ fall-semester MITx courses are already in: Of the 100,000 who registered for 6.00x (Introduction to Computer Science and Programming), 11,000 were active users of the course; for 3.091x (Introduction to Solid State Chemistry), 28,512 initially registered, with an average 6,000 active users and 2,082 who passed the course.

In 6.002x (Circuits and Electronics) — MITx’s prototype course and the only course on edX that has completed two semesters — 46,000 registered, with about 6,000 active students and 3,008 who passed the course. During the course’s first run on MITx, prior to the edX announcement last year, 6.002x attracted nearly 155,000 people, with more than 7,000 who passed the course.

While 6.002x may have attracted fewer students online in its second offering, enrollment for its on-campus counterpart — 6.002 — grew this past semester by 50 percent over the previous fall. Although it’s difficult to attribute the enrollment spike to any specific cause, 6.002 instructors surmise that the edX version of the course may have sparked added interest. For coming semesters, instructors are considering how best to use edX tools in their classrooms.

Deadlines around the world

In addition to new courses, edX introduced a number of new features and technologies throughout the fall semester, some developed on the fly.

Last fall’s 6.002x instructor, Khurram Afridi, a visiting associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, recalls one period when the edX team had to improvise a video-delivery system for students in the Middle East. Early in the fall semester, an inflammatory YouTube video prompted many Muslim countries to block access to the site. Since edX’s video content is streamed mainly through YouTube, students in those countries were unable to access course materials — a problem Afridi learned of when students from Pakistan, Iran and other countries wrote in on the online discussion forum.

“The technology wasn’t set up to do this, but within a couple of days, the edX team was able to provide alternate means for the students to download videos and watch them on their end,” Afridi says. “We were able to retain these students.”

The exercise proved useful when, midway through the semester, thousands of students lost power as Hurricane Sandy whipped through the northeastern United States. In response, the edX team worked to extend deadlines to students affected by the storm — a complicated process that involves reprogramming software to shuffle course files and change due dates.

“It’s one thing if you have four students sending you valid excuses, and quite another when you have whole nations,” says John Guttag, the Dugald C. Jackson Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at MIT, and an instructor for 6.00x — a course led by MIT Chancellor Eric Grimson.

Talking in class

Each week, materials for each edX course include video snippets taken from classroom lectures, as well as short video tutorials in which instructors expand upon lectures through a variety of means: scribbling on pieces of paper, talking through presentation slides, or creating screencasts — recordings of instructors’ voices and drawings as they illustrate a point on a computer screen.

Of the features offered on edX, instructors found the discussion forums to be the most useful in gauging student interest and participation. Afridi says he could tell which lectures and demonstrations went over well with students by the chatter and posts on the forum. One demo proved particularly popular: In 6.002x, Agarwal sets up an experiment with a pickle, running a current through it to make it first glow, and then smoke. In response, students from around the world posted videos on the forum, demonstrating the same phenomenon.

In fact, the discussion forum has become a sort of platform for peer-to-peer review: When a student posts a question on a problem set, instructors have found that it is often another student who answers first. Recognizing this trend, the edX team appointed several “community teaching assistants” midway through the fall semester — students from around the world who appeared to be the most active and helpful in online discussions — to act as forum moderators.

“That was very healthy because that meant students were much more involved,” Afridi says.

Beyond the honor code

EdX still faces challenges as it continues to expand — chief among them, student assessment: How can an instructor know if a student’s work is really his or her own? Students who complete an edX course today receive a certificate based on an “honor code,” although there is no guarantee that test scores reflect a student’s true abilities.

As an experiment to address such issues, edX has announced an option for students to take a proctored version of the 6.002x final exam, which will be offered on Feb. 13. The edX team is partnering with Pearson VUE, a proctoring service with 450 centers in 110 countries, where students can go to take a supervised exam for a modest fee. In return, students receive a certificate indicating their proctored status.

In the meantime, researchers are looking into other ways to improve online assessment, including services in which proctors use webcams to monitor students. Agarwal says edX is talking with a number of companies that offer such services to see whether such a technology can scale to edX’s hundreds of thousands of students.

“Right now there’s orders of magnitude difference in terms of what I can do with assessment in class and what I can do online,” says Michael Cima, the instructor of 3.091x and the David H. Koch Professor of Engineering at MIT. “That’s going to narrow. It’s going to happen. You can tell that this is a sea change.”

Flipping the classroom experience

A priority for Cima is to learn how edX courses can improve traditional residential education on college campuses. Cima and other edX instructors will be analyzing data collected over the fall term to see what techniques and tools help students better grasp course content. For example, videos and tutorials offered on edX can be sped up or slowed down, replayed or advanced, depending on a student’s individual learning speed — a tool that, judging from student e-mails, is extremely useful.

Cima says that in the future, on-campus courses may benefit from such edX tools. A lecturer, he envisions, may ask students to watch a video sequence on edX, and come prepared to discuss the content in class.

“Right now I have this really oppressive punch list of things to get through in a lecture, so if I take more than three questions, I run the risk of not covering everything,” Cima says. “But [with edX], now I don’t have to cover everything.”

In fact, over the fall term, San Jose State University offered an electrical engineering course that blended in-class work with materials from 6.002x to create a “flipped” classroom. Students watched lectures and tutorials online, then came to class to work out problem sets with instructors. Initial results from that trial showed that students completed the course with higher test scores, and the failure rate fell from 41 percent to 9 percent. This spring, the same blended approach will be offered at two community colleges in Massachusetts.

“Education has not changed so much for the last 100 years,” Guttag says. “And we’re sort of at a point where there’s going to be a big change, and it would be exciting to be part of that change.”

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