Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Student Becomes the Teacher

This article is part of Future Tense, which is a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University. On Wednesday, April 30, Future Tense will host an event in Washington, D.C., on technology and the future of higher education. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Over the past year, a boy genius from Mongolia has been schooling MIT on how to improve the elite institution’s free online courses.

When he was just 15, the Mongolian wunderkind Battushig Myanganbayar earned a perfect score in MIT’s first massive open online course, or MOOC. Designers of the course touted him as a poster boy for the power of free courses to spread high-quality education to the farthest reaches of the globe, and the New York Times hailed his story. But leaders of edX, the consortium started by MIT and Harvard University to develop free online courses, also did something else: They offered the star student a job, hoping he could make their MOOCs work better for other high schoolers.

As it turns out, edX needed the help. Despite the hope that courses from name-brand universities would draw students from high schools and less-selective colleges, some 70 percent of people taking edX courses already hold a college degree. MOOCs today are primarily serving the education haves, not disadvantaged learners.

“That certainly surprised me,” said Anant Agarwal, the CEO of edX and the instructor of the course Myanganbayar aced. “I expected more people who were in college [and high school],” he added. “We’re looking to change a few things to increase that number.” (Other MOOC providers have seen similar demographic trends, he notes.)

Bringing Myanganbayar in as an employee, though, raised tricky visa issues. But his high school principal in Mongolia, himself an MIT grad, suggested a hack: apply to MIT as a student, then work on MOOCs as a student job.

And that’s exactly what Myanganbayar did. Today, at age 17, he is finishing up his freshman year at MIT, where he has shared his critique of existing MOOCs.

Agarwal remembers a meeting where Myanganbayar gave a presentation to his staff as part of a series of meetings with MOOC students. “More than half of edX was in the room listening to him, glued to his every word,” he said. Their biggest question: How did Myanganbayar master the material in the MOOC, based on a sophomore-level MIT course on circuits and electronics, without having taken the prerequisites that cover concepts such as differential equations? There was nothing dumbed-down about the circuits course, known in MIT’s cryptic course catalog as 6002x, but Myanganbayar was one of only 340 to ace it out of about 150,000 registered students.

The edX staff learned that Myanganbayar spent about a quarter of the time he invested in the class scouring the Web for supplementary material, essentially using free websites to teach himself the high-level math he needed.

“We certainly took that lesson from him and others to heart,” said Agarwal. “We began to create tutorials for some key concepts that students might not know.”

It turns out the lesson fit a pattern. Though edX aimed to reach the world, its initial courses were designed for the people professors at MIT and Ivy-caliber partners know best—the ultraqualified students they’re accustomed to teaching in their hallowed halls.

Myanganbayar isn’t your typical online student, as I learned when I sat down with him in his dormitory common room earlier this year. He avoids activities that he considers wastes of time. “I don’t like to read literature books because they seem useless,” he says, explaining why he has avoided Harry Potter and other distractions. Wearing shorts and an “I [heart] MIT” T-shirt, he said that he took the MIT MOOC not because it was from a famous college, but because the intro video for it promised that it would teach him to understand how iPhones work. He was fascinated.

He also had some old-fashioned help. His principal had invited Tony Kim, a graduate of Stanford University, to lead daily help sessions at Myanganbayar’s high school to supplement the online course. So essentially, Myanganbayar’s MOOC had a really good teaching assistant—not a perk offered to the other 149,990-some people in the class

Myanganbayar breezed through the MOOC without doing any of the readings. He skipped them in part because he was too busy, but also because the material was in English, and he describes his language skills then as “terrible.” And to save time, he says he watched two video lectures at the same time, simultaneously reading the subtitles on one of them while listening to the audio from the other. He admits that “sounds pretty strange,” which is tough to contest, though many other MOOC students admit to watching lectures at double-speed.

He also did something else that few MOOC students take on: He produced his own lecture videos, in Mongolian, to help his classmates. “I developed my own technique to do mini-lectures by myself,” he explains. He propped his iPhone on a bookshelf and used its camera to film overhead video of his pen on the page as he completed homework problems and explained his work aloud.

Myanganbayar’s personal interest in online teaching led him to apply for a job as a research assistant to help develop MOOCs at MIT, working with the Scheller Teacher Education Program on three courses it is building for release through edX. He reported to work at the program’s offices in the MIT Media Lab, in the Lego-looking building designed by I.M. Pei. One of his missions was to produce a report on what he thought worked and didn’t work in current MOOCs, after investigating various MOOC platforms, including competitors Udacity and Coursera.

“He had plenty of suggestions,” says Ilana Schoenfeld, an education content manager at the program. One point he stressed was the need for better ways for students to teach one another, like he did with his homemade lecture videos, and discuss course content. “He was very into the community piece of it,” she added.

Sanjay Sarma, who leads MIT's MOOC efforts, does not know Myanganbayar, but he says that one thing the institute has learned from the experiences of online students is the need for “modularity”—the ability to take courses in manageable pieces. “Many students drop a MOOC not because of a lack of grit, but because of the logistics of life,” he said. “If you’re a 27-year-old student and your kid falls sick, you’re likely to drop out of the course. It’s clear that modularity will help there.” MIT recently tried a few half-semester courses through edX and plans to offer more. “We’re considering a one-week class,” he added.

Myanganbayar is a true believer that MOOCs can improve access to college, but he is clearly enjoying his time as an in-person student. He has joined a few student groups, and he likes that people casually discuss math in the dining hall. But he is much farther from home than he ever expected to be before taking the electronics course online. “The hard part about being a college student,” he said, “is you miss your family.”

Jeffrey R. Young is the technology editor for the Chronicle of Higher Education and author of the e-book Beyond the MOOC Hype: A Guide to Higher Education's High-Tech Disruption.

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