With growing edX role, some students skeptical

Students mixed on blended models, but some profs. foresee more online integration

Some MIT classes, using edX, have moved toward a blended model of education, integrating in-person and online learning. According to both students and instructors, this effort has made students’ college experience more flexible, but not without other flaws.

Online education has been at the forefront of the administration’s efforts this semester. The Institute-wide task force on the future of MIT’s education recently released their report encouraging “online and blended learning models to improve graduate curriculum accessibility.” According to the task force, this blended model provides “commitment to access and affordability.”

Prof. Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, and Prof. Eric Klopfer, professor of science education and engineering systems and director of the Scheller Teacher Education program, both support the conclusions drawn by the task report. Integrated classes allow students to have both access to professors and fellow students and “augment whatever they are doing in a traditional setting,” according to Agarwal in an interview with The Tech.

Students, however, seem to be less certain about online education. First-year MIT students interviewed expressed differing opinions on what types of classes should contain an online component.

Anuhya Vajapeyajula ’18, who took online Latin, government, and health classes, stated there is a tradeoff between the flexibility of “reading when I had time and taking tests as scheduled” and the networking opportunities available for in-person classes.

William J. Caruso ’18 stated that online classes cannot keep a steady pace and monitor individual students’ learning. He stated “discussion boards are unreliable sometimes… you just wanted to speak to the expert.”

Caruso added that computer science classes should have an online component, but math classes are not as amenable to online integration. “If you needed to ask a conceptual question [in math] there was no way to do that,” said Caruso.

On taking language classes online, Vajapeyajula believes “you don’t really learn the pronunciation that well. In class you had more activities and could converse, but online you focused on vocab and grammar; you couldn’t focus on speaking.” According to Vajapeyajula, humanities classes, which are characteristically more open-ended and reading/writing-based, are more efficient with an online component.

Amber T. Guo ’18, on the other hand, believes that open-ended classes should not contain an online component. “Online classes grade more trivial areas like grammar, whereas in-person classes grade more the actual expression of an idea,” stated Guo.

Agarwal agreed that “different courses might be more amenable to online versus in-person” but doesn’t consider it a matter of STEM versus humanities, of theoretical versus applied material, or of any “hard-and-fast dichotomy.”

Klopfer said, “MITx rose around STEM learning, so the model seems to fit better for STEM classes, but I don’t think that’s inherent to MOOCs [massive open online courses] and online learning.”

Both professors agree that a student’s individual learning style should define how they use the two formats.

While future initiatives of the blended model are uncertain, previous efforts, like the Technology-Enhanced Active Learning (TEAL) system have seen sustained use at MIT. TEAL, the format for the introductory classical mechanics (8.01) and electricity and magnetism (8.02) classes, “incorporates lecture, recitation, and hands-on experiments in one presentation” and uses online, instant-feedback homework according to its website. Guo said, “the way the TEAL system works is a good way… you actually get through, instead of guessing through and getting it wrong.”

The online education pivot may also affect the future of the MIT undergraduate degree. Agarwal believes that an undergraduate degree should not necessarily be just four years of classes. He suggested the following possibility: “three years to get the rich experience, then instead of the last year on campus, go get a job in the industry… feather it out.”

Klopfer added, “A year spent online, maybe junior or senior year, with an internship or research project somewhere, and taking courses while you do that, is more viable.”

According to Agarwal, improvements can still be made to the online education system. Online classes need what Agarwal called “social learning” — online groups and discussion forums for people working on any given part of the class. Agarwal noted that the main advantage students taking in-person classes still have is “getting to interact in person with faculty — with each other.”