Saturday, May 12, 2012

edX: A Step Forward or Backward?

Lloyd Armstrong, University Professor and Provost Emeritus at the University of Southern California

May 2 2012

edX, the new distance learning collaboration recently announced by MIT and Harvard, has gotten a lot of attention, and rightly so:

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)  today announced edX, a transformational new partnership in online education. Through edX, the two institutions will collaborate to enhance campus-based teaching and learning and build a global community of online learners.

Coming on the heals of the appearance of Coursera, Udacity, and the edX precursor, MITx, this has lead numerous commentators to suggest that we have entered a veritable age of aquarius for massively open online courses (MOOCs). All of these efforts involve, to one degree or another, universities of the very top rank and each will offer online versions of university level courses using the most advanced technologies. Further, all will be open to anyone who wants to sign up, and the courses will either be free or involve a very nominal cost for e.g. testing. Importantly, however, none of these efforts will lead to course credit, degree or certificate from the universities involved. Instead, successful students can hope for a signed letter of completion from their well-known instructor or a certificate from the organization


I view all of these efforts as really positive developments in a number of dimensions. First, the major universities are recognizing that online learning is part of the future of education. Harvard and MIT emphasize that through edX (and MITx), they will be testing new approaches to education that will end up enriching their traditional on-campus experience while offering high level online education to learners around the world.  [snip].

One concern I have is that all of the descriptions of the platforms emphasize the technology that has gone into them.  Ultimately, however, it is not the best technology, but the best technology designed to support the best pedagogy that will will be most effective in producing the best learning.[snip].


Several articles on this explosion of online ventures have referred to a similar explosion at the end of 1990's - an explosion that ended in a bust.  Will this lead to a similar bust? I would venture a firm "yes and no."


My guess is that these numbers will not be reproducible over time, and that the number of recreational users of these courses will decrease as the newness wears off. This part of the market will be a "bust."   However, I think there potentially is a huge market for these high quality products "repackaged" by others to provide credentialing. I can imagine lower ranked higher education institutions all over the world deciding that they cannot produce courses of the quality that can be obtained for free from these ventures and others that will surely spring up. These institutions are likely to see how they can incorporate these courses into their own programs, thus simultaneously increasing quality and decreasing instructional costs. [snip].


So why do I question in the title of this post whether edX is a step backward? I actually thought that MITx was a brilliant idea that solved one outstanding problem of great significance- at least to me.  MITx will give a certificate to students that successfully complete a course. One could imagine that a few years from now, MITx would have the equivalent of entire degree programs on line. Students successfully completing the demanding sequence would not, of course, get an MIT degree, but rather a MITx "super-certificate" certifying their success in the entire degree program.  [snip].

What problem does this solve? In higher education, brand is related to scarcity. Every highly ranked educational institution limits the number of students it has, and sets very high requirements for entry. This limits the potential for the highly ranked universities to educate large numbers of students or to educate students who are from a significantly different educational demographic. [anip].

I don't believe that edX has this same potential. Multiple masters diffuse responsibility for course quality, and that diffusion will become even more obvious as other partners come on line.  This diffusion would make an edX super-credential of considerably less value to employers, and thus of less value to students. Of course, it may well be that neither MITx nor edX ever plans offer the equivalent of a degree program, so all of these thoughts may be totally useless. But MITx could do something really revolutionary.

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