Group urges checks on online learning at MIT
Social skills and credit integrity at stake
Concerned about the pace of change brought about by online learning, an Institute subcommittee is now preparing to recommend a “face-time” degree requirement, strong oversight of on-campus MITx experiments, and a “conservative initial approach” to awarding credit for edX classes.
“We’re not against it. Just go slow, and see what’s going to happen,” Professor Susan S. Silbey said of digital learning experiments in MIT classes. Silbey, who heads the anthropology department, is the chair of the subcommittee.
A draft report detailing the committee’s recommendations was presented at a faculty meeting on March 19.
The subcommittee saw “incomparable value” in face-to-face engagement between faculty and students, suggesting that without such interaction, students would struggle to develop social skills like “turn-taking” and the use of “visual, bodily cues.”
Face-time also helps build community and makes faculty members more approachable, the draft report said.
While encouraging professors to use MITx — a software platform that allows instructors to post videos, text, quizzes, and various other types of modules — in a way that enhances face-time with their on-campus students, the subcommittee expressed a concern that some would use MITx “as a substitute for physical co-presence.” The subcommittee recommended a limit to the number of classes with insufficient face-time that may count toward a degree.
Professor Sanjay E. Sarma, the director of digital learning, said that “pretty much every online experiment that I’ve seen using MITx” actually had the effect of “enriching” interpersonal interaction in the classroom.
Proponents of such experiments often argue that delivering course material through, say, online videos frees up class time for richer interaction than offered by traditional lectures, which are seen as ineffective.
The committee warned that the student experience — of which face-time is an important part — could be “significantly reconfigured” over time “without sufficient notice or coordinated oversight.”
“We could make lots of incremental changes without anybody looking at the whole, and five years down the road, ten years, we’ll be someplace different,” Silbey said.
The subcommittee thus recommended that “all experimental proposals involving MITx-related curricular changes be first channeled through departments, then schools, and ultimately, Institute faculty committees” for evaluation, feedback, and approval.
Sarma wrote in an email that the recommendations “[give] us enough leeway to do the experiments we are really interested in — such as blended learning experiments and so on — and yet opens the door to some distance learning experiments with oversight from the faculty governance system.”
“I feel comfortable with this approach and the recommendations are reasonable,” Sarma wrote.
As to awarding credit for courses completed on edX — which allows students around the world to take free online classes from MIT and other schools — the subcommittee called for a “conservative initial approach.”
Some have suggested that students could take MIT courses on edX during high school and shorten their time as MIT undergraduates to three years. A separate task force, expressing doubts, said in November that the proposal “need[ed] further attention.”
Silbey said the proposal “has no grounding, except in some impulse that we’re on some technological race, and we need more, more, more, more, more. I think we should take a breath.”
The subcommittee wrote that edX courses could be considered for credit within the same framework in which courses taken by transfer students are considered.
To make sure students know the material when they receive credit, the subcommittee also recommended using exams (such as the Advanced Standing Exams) or supplemental courses that fill the gap between an online course and a standard MIT course.
But the subcommittee recommended against awarding letter grades for edX courses “[u]ntil online learning platforms become more robust in both pedagogy and assessment.”
The recommendations were prepared by the MITx Subcommittee of the Faculty Policy Committee, which charged the subcommittee with determining “the standards and policies necessary to guide discussions and decisions regarding the Institute’s residential education and degree programs in the context of MITx and other edX partners.”
The subcommittee comprised 15 members, including seven professors and five students.
One of the non-voting members of the subcommittee, Professor Diana Henderson, said that she saw many opportunities for digital innovation in education. “[A]ccess to multimedia performance and the ability to annotate, collaborate, and illustrate have been crucial for the development of new modes of studying Shakespeare,” she wrote in an email.
Writing-intensive subjects may not transfer as well to online-only courses, such as those on edX, Silbey suggested.
Even when evaluating courses taken at another residential college, when the claimed MIT equivalent course assigns papers, Silbey said that “if they have not written a paper, I tend not to give them credit.” Silbey is the transfer credit examiner for anthropology and sociology.
Given that edX courses regularly attract tens of thousands of students each, they typically can’t assign papers, at least not ones that can be graded by instructors. If Silbey has her way, such courses will never substitute for writing-intensive courses at MIT.
Silbey argued that some MITx-related proposals, like the three-year MIT undergraduate program, reduce the meaning of a college education to the mere acquisition of technical skills.
Education should not just be about learning these skills as quickly and efficiently as possible, Silbey said.
Last May, the Office of Digital Learning suggested that MIT invite incoming freshmen to take an introductory computer science class on edX over the summer. Silbey said that the idea raised concerns among some faculty members. “What is the message we’re sending to incoming students?” Silbey asked.
The move, which was not approved, would pressure students to do lots of work and get ahead before coming to MIT, Silbey said. “That’s the wrong message.”
“Many people are concerned that MIT students already feel pressure, that maybe what they need is time without work — time to think, time to relax, time to just explore the world,” Silbey said.
The move would have also suggested to freshmen that “if you’re going to do work this summer, you should learn programming, coding,” Silbey said. “Well, maybe we think you should read a history book, a novel, or maybe a book of poems.”
However, she said that she thought suggesting things that incoming freshmen could do over the summer was a “perfectly good idea,” and that she would have been happy had MIT sent them five different suggestions rather than just one.
A revised proposal was later approved by a faculty committee, and this summer, MIT will be offering five on-campus classes for all MIT students. The classes will experiment with “blended learning models” that incorporate elements of both traditional and online classes.
No poetry, though: the classes are in mechanical engineering, materials science, biology, and physics.
Silbey cited the episode last spring as evidence that MIT needs more communication and oversight when it comes to online learning experiments. But Sarma, the director of digital learning, said that the fact that the proposal was not approved was a sign that review processes were working.
Still, “that kind of experiment needs not to come out of the blue, but has to go through the normal processes,” Silbey said. “Lots of the experimentation is taking place outside normal department channels.”
Silbey said that faculty members sometimes did not know when new courses with new digital components were being offered in their own departments.
“I don’t think anything has been put in the curriculum that didn’t go through [the Committee on the Undergraduate Program], but we’re pretty generous with regard to what counts as an experiment,” Silbey said. “We let a lot of things happen under the rubric of experiments, but they’re not really experiments, because there’s no A/B testing; there’s [insufficient] evaluation in a systematic way.”
“Now, we recognize that there are multiple points of view here, that some people see faculty governance as an impedance to change. ‘Oh, they drag their feet, they always ask us such picayune questions.’ But you get good feedback a lot of the time, too,” Silbey said. “So it’s a tradeoff.”
Sarma said he was on board with the subcommittee’s call for faculty oversight. “The feedback is usually very good,” he said. “I have not felt that the faculty governance has impeded us at all.”
“We’re trying to respond to everyone,” Silbey said. We want to support this innovation, this experimentation, but we also don’t want to create something that doesn’t have the same kind of collegial engagement that normally happens. That’s our goal.”