The most recent edition of the MIT Faculty Newsletter is carrying an article by MIT Office of Digital Learning Director Sanjay Sarma and Associate Director Isaac Chuang to the MIT community:

The Magic Beyond the MOOCs

Sanjay Sarma and Isaac Chuang
Of the great deal written about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in recent months, much has been positive, some frothy, some skeptical, and some outright negative. Online education is likely a game changer for those who don’t have access to residential education but will it – the question goes – replace residential education?

That is the fear in some quarters (and the hope in others). Our personal view is: not in the foreseeable future. The edX platform, which has simulations, advanced assessment, and discussion forums, is becoming more capable every month, but there is essential magic in residential in-person education that is difficult to articulate, let alone replicate online.

Meanwhile, independent concerns over the high costs of higher education are triggering a re-examination of the value of residential education. Online tools may be just the cure that saves residential education by increasing the value it provides, not the disruption that kills it.

The Magic of Residential Education

President Rafael Reif has consistently described edX as bringing “instruction” to students. Woodie Flowers, creator of two signature experiences that capture the magic of in-person education – MIT’s iconic 2.007 design class and the global FIRST Robotics competition – for over two decades has contrasted the transmission of codified content, or instruction, and the much deeper, immersive experience that we refer to as education.

But references to the distinction go far back and include the writings of the sociologist and civil rights activist W. E. duBois (“The true college will ever have one goal – not to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes.” – in Souls of Black Folk, 1903) and John Dewey (“What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worth while, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur.” –in Experience and Education,1938).

Over the years, the same general dichotomy has shown up in different research efforts in education with different labels: first order versus second order learning, surface versus deep learning, cognition versus meta-cognition, novice versus expert learning, and so on. Rather than seeing MOOCs as distracting or threatening to today’s education business, we believe the need of the hour is for educators to figure out how this new tool might streamline first order learning and free us up to enrich second order learning. Read more.