Opinion guest column

A new kind of classroom

What happens to the classroom when students can learn all the material online?

With the evolution of massive open online course (MOOC) and online learning, in the near future students will no longer need a lecture to learn material. We are already seeing the beginning of this trend; independent learners can teach themselves in an online environment and receive immediate feedback. This represents a major change in model of education. Teachers are no longer the gatekeepers of knowledge and students can take charge of their own educations. The democratizing of knowledge will completely reshape the classroom. When students no longer need to come to lecture to learn the material, what role does the classroom have in education? Where is the added value?

The current model for the classroom was born out of scarcity. The professor was the only person who had the knowledge of the subject and the most efficient way to distribute that knowledge was for him or her to lecture in front of students. This model could be scaled up to lectures of hundreds of students and has successfully educated millions students for hundreds of years. This model worked, in part because there was no other way for the students to get the information the professor was teaching.

Today, the very same information is online. Through resources like Khan Academy, edX, and other MOOCs, students can learn the same material as before but at their own pace and with instant feedback. As Salman A. Khan ’98 likes to say, this new model flips the classroom; students learn all the equations, definitions, and concepts for a subject independently, spending as much time as necessary on each topic. Many MOOCs offer tests and practice problems, providing students a chance to demonstrate mastery. In short, students no longer need to attend lecture to get every concept that lecture offered.

As the shift evolves, the role of the classroom must change. The classroom of tomorrow must offer students something they cannot get online. To use the language of one of the most influential teachers in my life, the students need to be essential — a professor can still give the same lecture to an empty room, but a hands-on classroom cannot exist without students. The best way for the classroom to stay relevant is for it to showcase the value of face-to-face interaction.

One potential model which fits those criteria is for the classroom to evolve into a space where students work on independent projects related to the topics they are learning online. Through these independent projects, students get the chance to learn through doing — something MIT students are already familiar with — to answer their own questions, to explore the boundaries of their knowledge, and to take control and teach themselves. Getting a chance to take what they learned online and apply it in the real world is something students can only get by coming to an actual classroom.

In the classroom, students would bring what they are learning to life, designing and conducting independent research projects that answer the questions the students ask about the material. The skills these projects require — defining the scope of a project, creating a controlled experiment, analyzing the results and reaching conclusions — complement the skills that students can teach themselves online. Furthermore, these skills are as essential to an education but are not stressed in today’s classroom.

Before beginning an independent project, a student could be asked to write a proposal outline the scope of the project, what they hope to learn, how they will know if they are successful, and what they expect the biggest challenges to be. At the end of a project, students will write an evaluation describing the strengths and weakness of their method, what they learned, what questions still remain, and what they would change. These evaluations and proposals help the students develop effective communication skills. Over the course of a project, students can give presentations describing how their research is going. Some projects might even result in posters, robots, research papers, and more; however, learning the process is more important than whether or not a specific project produces something tangible.

The research skills which students can develop in the hands-on classroom will serve students far beyond their time in school. The process that a student learns over the course of an independent research project can be applied to any type of learning. I know this because I have experienced it first-hand.

My senior year of high school I did a program called Senior Year Project and conducted an independent research project by following a similar process to the one I outlined. Over the course of my project, I wrote a successful grant application, built and operated a biodiesel processor, wrote a 25-page thesis about efficiency in biodiesel production, and presented my research to the community. The research skills and confidence that I gained as a result of this processes have continued to serve me in several UROPs and in my MIT classes. I was offered the chance to take charge of my education and was amazed by what I learned and produced.

In the classroom of tomorrow, all students will have the chance to pursue independent projects like my biodiesel processor. Instead of listening to lecture about material they can teach themselves online, students become map makers, creating their own educations and gaining lifelong skills in the process, learning through doing. In that classroom, the students are essential.

Sam Shames is junior in Course 3