MITx and the classroom of tomorrow

A vision for the future of edX and MIT

In recent weeks, there has been much energy and enthusiasm about both MITx and its multi-institutional counter part edX. Listening to the debate over how MITx can be integrated into the residential experience, I am impressed by how much thought all affected parties have invested. We as a community are at a crossroads. We have been presented with an opportunity to substantially change what it means to receive a college education. This possibility excites me, but for others it may seem slightly frightening. Many people are concerned about what we may lose in the process of integrating online education into our current system. While these concerns are certainly valid, I am still optimistic. Rather than focus on how MITx might harm, I focus on how it can transform. What follows is my vision of how this transformation might play out.

One of the biggest concerns about MITx is how it may try to replace the traditional classroom. But rather than replace, MITx helps reinforce and supplement the traditional lecture format by allowing students to learn and the teacher to teach more effectively. With MITx, a student who is struggling and needs extra help can use the course material on MITx to review previous lectures and complete extra practice problems. Having the opportunity to see the same material again, but presented differently, will help these students grasp difficult concepts. At the same time, instant feedback shows students their progress and allows them to see what they have mastered. What’s more exciting as a learner than watching yourself improve?

While helping students master course material, MITx helps professors and faculty measure exactly what their students have and have not learned. Providing this type of feedback allows for more focused and effective teaching. When professors know exactly what a class does and does not understand, they can use class time more efficiently.

Not only would the integration of MITx improve the traditional classroom setting, but it would also empower students by giving them the resources they need to take control of their education. Currently, if a student is very excited about a subject and wants to study it, the only option they have is to read the textbook. Not only is this not a very effective way to learn, but it is about as common as turning in optional problem sets. MITx offers a better platform for enthusiastic students to explore the material at their own pace. It provides students with an unprecedented level of control of their education, a level of control that is sure to be welcomed by the self-sufficient learning community that is MIT.

At the same time, learning through MITx allows students to engage course material in a completely new way. In the future, courses on MITx could be organized both by department and by topic. For example, one section of MITx could be thermodynamics. Included in this section would be all the thermodynamics classes across majors. For the first time, a student could explore thermodynamics from a course 10, 3, and 2 perspective. Presenting the material in this format highlights the interdisciplinary nature of so much of what we learn, while also showcasing the connections between different fields.

When a group of independent learners can use MITx in this manor, they will be able to reinvent their residential education and delve into a project-based curriculum. These students will use MITx to learn everything that they have received in a traditional lecture and during class time they will work on interdisciplinary projects, bringing the online to live material through hands-on experience. Working together with faculty, these students get exposed to applications of what they have learned and have yet another chance to be the driver of their own education. Of course, this is only possibly when students are able to get all the background skills needed to complete a project online.

What excites me most is that many projects will be inherently interdisciplinary and will unite students across departments. Furthermore, if MITx is organized by interdisciplinary topics, it will be easier for students to learn the relevant information for their project, even when they need information outside their department. For example, a student who wants to build a biodiesel processor for a project would need to understand chemistry, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, etc. With MITx, this student could map out a focused course of study across those departments and learn everything they need in order to complete their project. Never before have students had this much flexibility to choose their course of study.

The ideas I have presented are just some possibilities that excite me. Part of the beauty of MITx is its flexibility, as there are many more ways to integrate residential and online learning. MITx can enhance residential education, and encourage others to start innovating. Instead of wasting energy worrying about how MITx can harm MIT, we should let our imaginations run wild. If we dream about how MITx can transform and improve our experience, then I know we can invent the education of tomorrow.