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MOOCs Aren’t Revolutionizing College, but They’re Not a Failure

MOOCs Aren t Revolutionizing College but They re Not a Failure MIT Technology Review


When Harvard and MIT announced the creation of edX, they said a major goal was to jump-start innovative teaching to their own students. That got little attention, at least beyond Cambridge, but there are signs it is happening. Many of the technologies central to MOOCs, built around interactivity and assessment, can be useful tools for students on campus, says MIT’s director of digital learning, Sanjay Sarma. MIT students can’t get credit for taking even MIT-produced MOOCs, but they still use MOOC tools in their courses. Two-thirds have taken a traditional course that uses the edX software platform.

Down Massachusetts Avenue, Harvard computer scientist David Malan says his campus has also seen “a marked uptick” in conversations about reinventing teaching. Malan’s Introduction to Computer Science course captures many of these currents. The on-campus version is Harvard’s most popular, with around 800 students. The MOOC version has about 350,000 registrants from around the world, ranging from preteens to 80-year-olds. Both versions use sophisticated, overlapping learning resources, from lecture videos to assessments. Their academic standards are the same.

Malan began videotaping lectures in 1999, but he says the tools of the MOOC bring a new dimension to his teaching. For example, lectures that typically take an entire class period can be broken up online into shorter, more focused units, allowing students to spend as much time on each segment as they need.

The paying Harvard students decide for themselves whether to attend the lectures or just catch them online. “I would like to think there’s a nontrivial psychological upside to the shared experience,” he says, but it’s up to them. Instead of necessarily having all 800 students attend each lecture, “I would rather have 400 students who want to be there,” he adds. Besides, “we’re nearing the point where it’s a superior educational experience, as far as the lectures are concerned, to engage with them online.”

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