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  • The Ultimate Democratizer

    - The edX family has a Dutch member: Delft University of Technology will join the major MOOC-platform founded by MIT and Harvard. ScienceGuide spoke with a delighted edX president Anant Agarwal: “The introduction of MOOCs is like the rising of the tide, it will lift all boats”.

    EdX is a non-profit enterprise that features learning designed specifically for interactive study via the web. Teaching no longer takes place ’just’ or ‘only’ in classrooms, learning sequences are offered in so-called Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Blackboards have been replaced by videos and laboratories have become virtual.

    Equal access to world-class education

    Anant Agarwal is “very delighted” that TU Delft will offer its courses on edX. “It is fantastic news! That’s what edX is all about: offering the best courses, from the best professors, from the best universities in the world.” For example, a course from famous Delft graduate Professor Walter Lewin can already be followed on edX. Along with Delft, five other universities joined edX: The Australian National University, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, McGill University, Rice University and University of Toronto.

    Why did edX want Delft on board? “Delft has a very rich history in open courses and OpenCourseWare. Delft joining our platform with open content is the next important step”. Agarwal notes that this is just the start, as the developments continue at a “battering pace”. It was only last year that the ‘Big Three’: edX, Cousera and Udacity started with their online education. The joining of universities from outside the US is the next big step, but certainly not the last. “Our goal is to have a very diverse group of universities, both in geography and scientific fields. Even so we want universities that join our core business and share our core values”.

    EdX is not your every-day university and it has rather idealistic core values: edX is all about equal access to world-class education. “We want to educated people with the best education, independent of one’s money, background, age or geography”, says Agarwal.

    “We have two main goals as edX. First, we want to improve the overall quality of the world’s education by offering the best courses from the best professors. Secondly, we want to dramatically improve access to education, and especially first-class education, around the globe. Currently we teach people from 190 countries, and our second biggest market at the moment is India.”

    Teacher training and ISTP2013

    MOOCs can also play a role in ‘teaching the teachers’, since the knowledge and techniques “can be applied to every field”. Remedial teaching can also be revolutionized by ‘open online courses’. Research by the US Department of Education in 2009 found that “students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.”

    For the major ‘Obama Summit’ of the ISTP2013 in Amsterdam, the Teaching Summit initiated by president Obama, this point cannot be overlooked. The key-nations and ministers on educational reform for the teaching profession assembled there will be stirred by the acknowledgement that MOOCs are also coming to a teacher training college or knowledge center near you.

    Recently, more evidence has been collected that demonstrates the possibilities MOOCs offer to improve the quality of education and the success rate of students. Blended learning, an education model in which traditional classes are combined with online lectures, can boost student grades. A pilot found that blending San Jose State University classes with edX’s online lectures reduced the number of students who received a “C” or lower by 31%.

    Teaching a MOOC

    Besides being president of edX, Anant Agarwal is also professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT. Agarwal teaches his MOOC: ‘Circuits and Electronics’ with “contagious enthusiasm”, one of his students blogs. So, how is it to teach a MOOC?

    “At some level it is practically the same, but the means are very different from traditional teaching. In online teaching there are no lectures, classrooms or blackboards. You work with learning sequences: videos of approximately 15 minutes that are linked with interactive exercises. These more advanced means dramatically improve learning.”

    You taught both traditionally and in a MOOC, what do you prefer?

    “It is very nice that you ask this, since when you would have asked me this question before October 2011 I would definitely have answered traditional teaching. In the beginning, I was not very comfortable in online teaching. Later, it became clear to me that it is possible to connect more and in a more meaningful way with the students.”

    There are also other advantages in online education?

    “You can create a course in your own time, at your own pace. For example, when my daughter is ill, I don’t have to go to the campus to teach anymore. All the work can all be done at my pace: when and where I want to do it.”

    “On top of that, I don’t have to give lectures at 9:00am anymore. Lectures at 9 o’clock are the worst, there are hardly any students and they are not very motivated either”. And it’s not only the teachers that get more control on the ‘when and where’ of courses. Students can follow MOOCs whenever they like, and that isn’t early in the morning. “The most popular time for students to download lectures is between midnight and 1 o’clock.”

    No threat to teachers’ job

    Agarwal does not agree with criticisms that MOOCs are a threat to conventional teaching and therefore, a threat to many teaching jobs. Agarwal believes that many other universities will join online education. Agarwal: “I believe that these courses will improve the overall quality of education and that teachers will get more involved. The introduction of MOOCs is like the rising of the tide, it will lift all boats”.

    “The greatest challenge for MOOCs in the coming years is to continually improve the quality of education. Not long ago, people said it was impossible to teach laboratory skills in MOOCs. Now virtual laboratories have been developed and are included in the courses. Other examples are group work and discussions that are normally held during lectures. Students from the same cohort can now discuss the content of a course virtually. We have to continue to innovate”.

    The mission of edX states that they want to educate “a billion people”. Who will edX’s billionth student be? “This student can come literally from anywhere. It can be a child from an Indian village or an old woman from Sub-Saharan Africa. Or it can be a teenager living in a luxurious penthouse in New York City. Open Online Education is the ultimate democratizer.”