Anant Agarwal: Why massively open online courses (still) matter


Anant Agarwal is president of edX, a partnership of MIT and Harvard to provide MOOCs. He is also a professor of MIT with background in electrical engineering and computer science.


Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are taking off, able to teach millions of people at a time using online interactive technologies. 155,000 people enrolled in edX’s first MOOC, with 7,157 students passing. But in this course, Anant looks at what we can learn from MOOCs to apply in more conventional university courses.

University lectures have not changed significantly in the last 50 years. Anant claims the last big leap in education was textbooks and the printing press, hundreds of years ago. Modern teenagers interact and learn very differently to how they learnt decades ago – they are more comfortable in the online world. Education needs to embrace technology to better engage students.

  • Online Lecture, blended physical approach – let them watch videos at their own pace, wherever they are most comfortable. They can pause, rewind, skip, mute – letting them control the information flow better. Then they can meet physically to interact, discuss their learning, and do practical exercises in a classroom with other students. By adopting a blended approach in this way, San Jose university’s circuits and electronics course went from a 41% fail rate to 9%.
  • Active Learning – instead of traditional lectures, they are replaced with online ‘lessons’. A lesson includes an 8 minute video and then some exercises – and this lets people interact with the material more.
  • Instant feedback – exercises can be marked instantly, rather than submitting work and getting feedback weeks later. This lets people instantly know whether they are correct.
  • Gamification – Use computer simulations to build online labs – for example building a circuit using an online lab.
  • Peer learning – using forums and discussions to let students talk about the subject matter. Originally Anant was going to answer all questions himself, but after a while he realised that students would respond to each other. They could talk and get to the answer without any input from himself – the students were learning by teaching each other.


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