Why Free Online Classes Are Still the Future of Education
The MOOC was The Next Big Thing—and then it was written off for dead. But for Anant Agarwal, one of the founding fathers of this online reboot of university education, it’s only just getting started.
Agarwal is an MIT computer science professor and the CEO of the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based non-profit, edX, one of several purveyors of so-called “massively open online courses,” or MOOCs, which offer free online classes from elite universities to anyone in the world. After it was buoyed by an enormous wave of hype two years ago, the MOOC has now plummeted in terms of public perception—with even one of its most prominent backers turning his back on the idea—but Agarwal is unbowed.
The way he sees it, effective uses of the MOOC model are only beginning to take shape. Enrollment in edX courses has doubled over last year, and he believes we’re on the verge of an era he calls MOOC 2.0. “We’ve been growing as others are throwing in the towel,” he says of edX
Such optimism is to be expected from a man who makes his livelihood from this model. But Agarwal isn’t alone in this opinion. This week, a team of researchers out of MIT, Harvard, and China’s Tsinghua University—all schools that offer MOOCs—released a study showing that students who attended a MIT physics class online learned as effectively as students who took the class in person. What’s more, the results were the same, regardless of how well the online students scored on a pre-test before taking the class.
“It’s an issue that has been very controversial,” said one of the study’s authors, Professor David Pritchard of MIT, in a statement. “A number of well-known educators have said there isn’t going to be much learning in MOOCs, or if there is, it will be for people who are already well-educated.”
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