What’s Worth Scaling?

I kicked off this week’s T509 prep with Anant Agarwal’s TED Talk on MOOCS and blended learning.  Towards the end of the clip, he calls the audience to take a moment to dream about education in the future.  He mentions that he can imagine a world where a college campus has only one lecture hall simply standing as a reminder to our grandchildren that we used to learn by sitting in a room and listening to a single lecturer without the convenience of a rewind button.  This all comes after a discussion on how content created through MOOC production is revolutionizing the way we can think about blended learning.  He points out key features such as videos capturing great teachers explaining complex topics and interactive assessments providing instant feedback and personalized learning.  While listening to him discuss a future of blended learning, I had to stop for a second and think about my own vision for my grandchildren’s education.  What would I want education of the future to look like and how do MOOCs influence that future?

In my T600 Class: Thinking and Learning Today and Tomorrow, we have been working on applying research ideas from Project Zero to thinking about what good education looks like.  I do not think that at any time one of my classmates has brought up that what educators need are really good lectures or self-graded assessments.  We have spent a lot of time, however, discussing how to create student-centered performances of understanding that guide learning and make it visible to students and teachers.

When I was teaching, I established a practice of having my students write letters to my future students as soon as they finished their final exam.  The assignment was for them to give that student advice and let them know what to expect in my class.  I always loved diving into reading these letters so that I could reflect on my practice from that year and get a glimpse of what my students thought about my class.  Not once did a student ever write anything like “His lectures are amazing” or “His quizzes really make me think.”  Instead I would read things like “He helped me understand that math is everywhere” or “I now know that math is used all the time in the real world.”  These types of responses did not emerge because I was really good at talking and writing good tests, but because I was focused on creating projects for my students that helped them learn math through application and reflection.

In thinking about the content of MOOCs (specifically xMOOCs), I can only think of two key elements: short video lectures and some form of automatically graded assessment for instant feedback.  All of these features tools for scaling pretty standard education practices in education today:  lectures and assessments.  By scaling these practices, are we really transforming education?  In my experiences, absolutely not.  I believe that teaching and learning worth scaling are practices that encourage students to experience authentic projects and engage with material in individual ways.  MOOCs in their current form are simply translating old practices to a new medium, not changing the same education practices that have led to major calls for reform.

In this week’s readings, I was inspired by a few key efforts to scale education that align with my vision of experiential learning.  I was impressed with the New York Times article on how Harvard Business School is approaching online learning.  Instead of jumping on the bandwagon of posting video lectures, Business School leaders went about thinking how they could recreate their case study based teaching and class cold calling into online learning.  On page 15 of the Institute –wide Task Force on the Future of MIT Education: Final Report, recommendations are given to MITx to think about ways to bring problem-based learning strategies to scale.  One incredible idea given as an example involved creating a series of MITx courses around air pollution to bring MOOC learners together around developing solutions in their communities.  These two examples captured for me what I think excellent learning at scale should look like.

When it comes to transforming education, I think many MOOCs are currently only thinking about a small part of the problem.  They are providing education and creating content at a large scale, but is it the type of education and content we should be scaling?  In future blended learning classrooms, it would break my heart to see students simply sitting around watching videos and taking assessments to show mastery.  I would want to see my grandchildren in an education system where they are engaged in meaningful projects and showing mastery through performance, not regurgitation.  When it comes to making that system a reality, I think MOOC advocates should be thinking less about how to better scale presenting and assessing content.  Instead, we should be thinking about how to scale practices that foster authenticity and engagement in learning.


2 thoughts on “What’s Worth Scaling?

  1. I agree with you on the future of MOOCs. What do you think of MOOCs as interactive textbooks? HBS is producing multimedia cases for its regular classes. For example, instead of reading about an issue in a developing country, they get to watch a video that puts students right there in the midst of it. I see this applying in MOOCS. Thoughts?


    • I definitely think that HBS has some great ideas about how to bring their teaching methods to broader audiences, their multimedia cases definitely sound awesome. What I worry about in terms of “interactive textbooks” is what this technology is really bringing to a learner and in what context its being used. I’m thinking about what Sanjay Sarma was saying last night about how professors seem to always be focused on their content and less on their audience of learners. To me, the idea of using MOOCs as interactive textbooks just seems to be another way to focus on creating more content that isn’t necessarily focused on methods that best help students learn.


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