Creative disrupters are welcome

Wednesday, March 5, 2014
Times Higher Education Rankings

If you have been following the progress of massive open online courses, you may have encountered Amol Bhave. A 17-year-old from a small city in India, he completed the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s prototype online course – the sophomore-level Circuits and Electronics (6.002x) – and earned terrific marks on his final exam.

This would be reason enough to admire him: the courses we share with the world on our Mooc platform, edX, are truly “MIT hard”. But it is what Bhave did next that attracted the world’s attention: excited by the opportunity to study university material on his own, he was eager to take the next subject in the sequence, Signals and Systems, known at MIT as “6.003”. When he discovered that this course was not yet available on edX, he was undeterred. With two friends he had met online through the 6.002x discussion boards – one from Bangalore, India, one from Montreal, Canada – Bhave made a decision that reflects his own talent and also resonates profoundly with the spirit of MIT: he decided to build the course himself.

Combining video lectures, discussion boards and wiki elements from MIT OpenCourseWare with course components from other sources and their own tutorials, Bhave and company created a complete course for themselves – and then shared it with the world online as “6.003z”. In no time they had 1,100 students from around the world. And by September 2013, Bhave found himself 7,500 miles from home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a member of the MIT Class of 2017.

The story is clearly a tribute to Bhave’s audacious creativity and drive, but it also points to the growing global reach and impact of online learning.

MIT and Harvard University came together to launch edX in May 2012. Today, the xConsortium (the leading global institutions working on the edX enterprise) has 30 members, attracts students from across the planet (almost half of them from developing countries) and has reached more than 1.7 million unique learners – 13 times the number of MIT’s living alumni.

MITx, the institution’s digital open online effort, recently launched Xseries, course sequences for which students can earn ID-verified certificates of achievement. As such developments spread, how long will it be before employers around the world routinely seek out applicants whose CVs feature such certified skills?

Along with our partners, we pursue this broad experiment in online learning because we know that its results will have far-reaching impact. As we employ the enormous quantities of edX user data to better understand how people learn, we are developing teaching strategies that will allow students to learn faster and retain more, not only online but also in classrooms everywhere.

As the “instructional” aspects of teaching move online, we want tomorrow’s classrooms to be places where teachers can focus on guiding students from absorbing content to mastering knowledge for action.

As we perfect the “blended” model of learning, which combines online modules and resources with in-person teaching, we also aim to make room in the residential curriculum for more personal interaction, learning by doing, teamwork and mentorship –indispensable elements of true education. As online tools make instruction more portable, we will give students the flexibility to take their education wherever they need to be. And we can only guess at the potential for good that will be unleashed if, in the spirit of Bhave’s brilliant project, we succeed in democratising not only the consumption of education but the shaping and sharing of educational content, too.

Bhave’s story also highlights several distinctive aspects of MIT’s mission, values and culture that helped to inspire our online experiments and inform our approach to everything we do:

A global service ethic

MIT’s mission directs us to advance knowledge and educate students in service to the nation and the world. Having benefited from the global gift of learning from edX, Bhave extended this spirit by offering 6.003z free of charge to his global peers.

A long-standing commitment to the open sharing of knowledge

Since MIT launched OpenCourseWare in 2002, we have made the materials for virtually all our courses available for free online. This enabled Bhave and his friends to build 6.003z on a foundation of course elements sourced from MIT OpenCourseWare.

Sustaining this spirit of openness will be essential to realising the potential of online learning to serve humanity.

An aspiration to meritocracy

In the mid-19th century, when higher education was a luxury reserved for the privileged, MIT was founded as a corrective: a place that would make a practical, science-based, problem-solving education available to anyone with the aptitude and perseverance to do the work.

From the start, the institution welcomed talent regardless of background; since then, to the great benefit of our graduates and society, MIT has provided generations of bright, hard-working students with a ladder to opportunity; Bhave demonstrates the latest way to start the climb.

An entrepreneurial attitude

In some ways, the most striking aspect of Bhave’s story was his simple refusal to accept the status quo, his conclusion that if the world was not providing something he needed, he would use the tools at hand to hack the present and produce the future of his dreams.

This is the irreverent, do-it-yourself spirit that has inspired generations of MIT inventors and entrepreneurs. And it is the spirit of creative disruption that has made our campus one of the most productive sources of innovation in the world.

In welcoming Bhave, we welcome him home to a community always hungry to learn, create and share.