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.


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


Anant Agarwal is the CEO of edX, an online learning destination founded by Harvard and MIT. As a  professor of electrical engineering and computer science, Anant taught the first edX course on circuits and electronics from MIT, which drew 155,000 students from 162 countries.


MOOCs  (massive open online courses) have become increasingly popular, but Anant Agarwal wants to create a blended model of learning. But education hasn’t changed much in the last 500 years. He equates the change needed  to transitioning from ox carts to airplanes; education must be reimagined.

With the younger millennial generation so dependent on technology, it doesn’t make sense to try to keep technology out of schools. He gives the example of two high school teachers in Mongolia who had flipped the classroom. They would assign watching lectures as homework and work more interactively during the school day. A similar pilot program was run at San Jose State University and the failure rate of the class fell from 41% to 9%.

So what are the key ideas that make blended learning effective?

  • Active Learning: Students learn much better when they are interacting with the material
  • Self Pacing: Hitting pause, or rewinding can be very useful to catering
  • Instant feedback: By grading with a computer, students can learn what they did wrong and find the correct solution on the spot.
  • Gamification: Gamifying work can be much more effective in engaging students
  • Pure Learning: Discussions are used a tool to help students learn from each other

The blended model has another benefit and that solves the practical problem of MOOCS: profitability. By licensing MOOCs to other universities, a new revenue model is created. MOOCs can become the next generation textbook.  “We have to move from bricks-and-mortar school buildings to digital dormitories.”