The newest revolution in higher ed

Sunday, March 3, 2013
The Boston Globe. Co-authored with Drew Faust, president of Harvard University.

IN 1837, the Massachusetts Board of Education devoted part of its first annual report to praising a recent classroom innovation called the blackboard. This “invaluable and indispensible” innovation enabled the “rapid and vivid communication of knowledge.” It created opportunities for teachers to engage learners in ways that had been unimaginable just a generation earlier.

The same and more will be said of online learning tools. We are at the beginning of a technology-led revolution in pedagogy: Our innovation is not the blackboard, but instead an evolving suite of tools that allows interactive learning online. While one outcome of this revolution has rightly caught the world’s attention — the power to democratize access to education on a scale never seen in history — we are just as excited about the promise that these new tools hold for colleges and universities throughout the world.

Indeed, the world will be better for what online learning can offer. Nearly 40 percent of the world’s population is connected to the Internet. People once separated from opportunity are now able to connect to it through education, and constantly evolving digital technologies are making the experience of learning through a computer better and better. Our two institutions share the goal of reaching learners worldwide, and, in May, we launched edX, a nonprofit online learning partnership that has attracted about 700,000 learners from around the world — and is adding 100,000 more every month.

Research universities approach big problems through investigation and experimentation, building on past work in order to make advances. Today’s model of online instruction is active and adaptive. Students in edX courses learn at their own pace, confirming their understanding of concepts with the help of automated features and immediate feedback. Their behavior can be studied to deepen our understanding of when and how people learn, resulting in new and improved tools that are rapidly increasing in sophistication. We’re also learning a great deal about how the traditional classroom can best be used.

As we move forward, we are thinking as broadly as possible about residential education as a whole. With support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Bunker Hill and MassBay Community Colleges are currently offering an adapted version of a popular MITx course. Students engage with lecture materials online, freeing up valuable class time for one-on-one and small group interactions. Emerging models of blended learning such as this unite best practices from both realms, highlighting the importance of in-person learning experiences that can tip the balance from failure to success for underprepared students.

At the same time, we continue to make advances that are enhancing the experiences of students on campus. Last semester, David Malan of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences developed a technology to assess programs submitted by students in both the HarvardX and the in-person versions of his popular computer science course. He reduced effort expended on routine activities and used the time saved to meet with his students. Access to edX courses has removed scheduling conflicts at MIT, and undergraduate and graduate students on both of our campuses have contributed to course development, testing, and refinement.

Critics have speculated that efforts to expand higher education’s reach may topple the residential model. There is, however, no substitute for membership in a campus-based community. Bringing people together generates the serendipitous encounters from which new ideas so often emerge. The value of face-to face interactions is nearly impossible to quantify, but the exchanges and collaborations that happen every day on campuses create wellsprings of discovery on which the free flow of knowledge around the world depends. The physicality of a campus is also essential to undertake research that fuels discovery, drives progress, and contributes to the economic health of our nation.

Starting Sunday, hundreds of leaders from across the country and around the world will convene at Harvard and MIT for a summit on the future of online learning and the residential model. Few moments in history have held more promise for higher education, and there is no more appropriate place for a revolution in learning and teaching to begin than here in Massachusetts.