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  • Anant Agarwal: We are reinventing education towards a new dimension

Anant Agarwal: We are reinventing education towards a new dimension

edX has a million students from all countries in the world, and we haven’t spent a single dollar on marketing. In Spain alone we have 30,000 students. We have moved from blackboards to tablets and from the traditional laboratories to simulation systems.

  • Anant Agarwal
    Anant Agarwal

Last year there was a great invention, one that will completely change how we have so far known education: that invention was the MOOC, or massive on-line open courses, which allow millions  of students worldwide access to the best teachers and the best universities, irrespective of where they live.


What difference is there between the MIT classes of 20 years ago and the classes nowadays? Only the color of the chairs has changed! The last great innovation in education was the invention of the printing press!


The possibilities opened up for us by Internet and the new technologies, the option of long-distance education, has allowed us to rethink how education is conducted.


For example, edX has a million students from all countries in the world, and we haven’t spent a single dollar on marketing. In Spain alone we have 30,000 students. We have moved from blackboards to tablets and from the traditional laboratories to simulation systems.


The first experience we set under way was an MIT electronic circuitry course. In just a few weeks 155,000 students enrolled for it, many more than the number in the whole of MIT. It would have taken us forty years to manage to give classes to all those students!


Another challenge we had to consider was that of logistics. How could we lend administrative support to so many people? We didn’t have enough staff! What happened if a student from Pakistan sent us a query or question when it was only the early hours in the United States?


Before I had time to reply, I realized that the students were starting to discuss things on the Web, talking about the reply, were in effect teaching each other. All we had to do was join in: A very good reply! That is how we came to learn from the very process of teaching: Learning by teaching, a win-win interplay for all.


Another of the pilot projects, this time at San José State University, was to see what happened if, instead of giving the lesson in the classroom, we allowed the students to follow the lesson, the videos and the interactive exercises from their bedrooms, and later in the classroom discuss with the teacher the problems they had experienced.


We found ourselves looking at spectacular results: The percentage  of students who dropped out of or failed a subject fell from 41% to 9%. That led the university to decide that as from next semester San José State University would adopt that model for all its courses.


We have to take into account that the generation of students now in the lecture halls is different, because they were born and have grown up with the new technologies and they feel more comfortable with tablets, chats and video games. They are therefore glad that education is imparted to them in such settings, and their reaction is much more positive.


The key points of massive on-line open courses are:


- Active learning: Instead of remaining seated listening to a lecturer until their attention begins to drop off, or being kept busy taking notes, with Active Learning you maintain your attention as you watch the videos or do interactive exercises. We have thus brought the Socratic method to education: questions and answers from the students as they learn.


- Instantaneous feedback: Before, our homework or exams were returned weeks after we had done them. Now, though, computers can correct exercises almost in real time, using artificial intelligence tools. As the student carries out an exercise, the screen shows whether the input is right or wrong.


- Gamification: Young people are used to video games. They keep on trying things out until they achieve the goal. They love working with simulation techniques, automatically seeing their progress.


- Research: At edX we are processing large quantities of data about active learning. The students’ behavior in front of the screen helps us to adjust the study programs.


I have been a teacher for 26 years now, yet sometimes still don’t know if its best to start with a lesson or an exercise. Here we can see in real time how the students themselves go about it, what they prefer, what they use and in what order. That way we adapt the program.


Finally, in this project we should stress the importance of each individual, of each student with his/her particular circumstances. We are reaching parts of the world in which they would never have dreamed of being able to educate themselves at the worlds’ finest universities. We are changing the world.

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