Opinion editorial

EdX needs vision

EdX, MIT’s online learning platform, has a lot of things going for it.

EdX has powerful institutional backers: first MIT and Harvard, and later Berkeley. EdX has a lot of money: $30 million each from the founding partners. EdX has a lot of users: over 150,000 registered for its first course, over 7,000 of whom successfully completed it. But edX lacks something vital, without which it will fail in it’s stated mission to improve residential education at MIT: edX lacks a clear vision.

Let’s put aside “educating the world” for now. Free, MIT-caliber online education for anybody with an Internet connection is a great goal, but it’s separate from President L. Rafael Reif’s intent to “integrate online technologies into the campus experience” with the purpose of offering his students the best residential education. It is this idea — that MIT can use edX to improve education right here on the north bank of the Charles — that deserves very careful scrutiny.

To put it more concretely: What will a successful implementation of edX actually look like? And what do we mean by “successful”? In a Wall Street Journal column this week, Reif said edX could essentially “flip the classroom” — that is, students do more mechanical learning online (like listening to lectures and answering quiz questions), and come to class to synthesize and analyze that material under the expert guidance of a faculty member.

Problem is, the details stop there and we have not seen serious, sustained efforts on MIT’s part to rally faculty around a process which sets standards for success and a clear vision for what will happen in the “flipped classroom.” Do the faculty resources even exist to support “meaningful back-and-forth exchanges” between students and professors, assuming lecture-learning happens at home on a laptop? Do we have the necessary educational spaces and equipment to support substantially richer in-class learning? And as was raised in last month’s MIT Faculty Newsletter, how do humanities fit into the equation when edX feels so tailored to science/engineering courses?

On top of that, the verdict is still out on what’s good and bad about the traditional college education model. It’s not easy to evaluate what teaching techniques work and which just waste everybody’s time, nor is it easy to evaluate how well MIT currently educates. (Do we measure success by average income of our graduates? The number accepted to top graduate programs? Self-reported satisfaction measures?)

EdX is an opportunity to take a fresh look at how we’ve been educating and to consider what we want to change. We should come in with few assumptions, because it just may be that — were we to take a closer look — we’d find that the way we’re teaching today is not accomplishing what we want to, and much should be thrown out with the dawn of digital education.

To be fair, edX backers have long said that the online learning platform is in large part a giant research project, designed to discover the pedagogy that works best according to some (unspecified) educational benchmarks. This is a great approach, but it’s high time we — or at the very least, MIT faculty — start seeing more specifics: data collected from the 6.002x pilot, proposed avenues for future pedagogical development, and standards by which we can know edX is working. And edX officials should take the time to respond publicly to critiques of edX made in the Faculty Newsletter.

A final point: We do believe technology like edX can improve residential education. And the work that has been done so far is impressive. But edX’s promise of exceptional impact deserves exceptional review — from students, faculty, and MIT Corporation members alike. Let’s revolutionize education together.