Mitra and Agarwal in today’s Observer

This week’s Sunday paper had articles by two of the well known names in disrupting education – Sugata Mitra of the “Hole in the Wall” project, and Anant Agarwal of EdX.

The gurus preaching these disruptions must love the platform they are given by mainstream press, and by industry bodies such as UUK as it gives them unbridled opportunity to preach to opinion formers. However, let’s look at what they have to say, and how useful it might be to us.

Firstly Sugata Mitra writes on “Advent of Google means we must rethink our approach to education” in which he discusses his view that curriculum is out of date in schools, and that self organising learning environments are the alternative. I’m pretty sure that Michael Gove might have a diametrically opposite point of view, but there is validity here in some of his ideas. I’m not sure I go all the way in removing all of the curriculum, but in terms of assessments being able to assess real skills rather than just facts then as Mitra says:

Teaching in an environment where the internet and discussion are allowed in exams would be different. The ability to find things out quickly and accurately would become the predominant skill. The ability to discriminate between alternatives, then put facts together to solve problems would be critical. That’s a skill that future employers would admire immensely.

He is not without his critics – a quick read of the comments underneath the article shows that, and it’s worth a look at this brief interview with Steve Wheeler.

The second article is by Anant Agarwal, one of the founders of EdX, the not for profit MOOC company led by Harvard and MIT, entitled “Online universities: it’s time for teachers to join the revolution“.

Like so many mainstream press articles on MOOCs, this is as usual full of praise and hyperbole about their potential:

“One way Moocs have changed education is by increasing access. Moocs make education borderless, gender-blind, race-blind, class-blind and bank account-blind”.

“Moocs are also improving the quality of education. Online learning promotes active learning, where the learner watches videos and engages in interactive exercises.”

An interesting point he makes is this (and remember Coursera’s recently expressed intention to move into the blended learning arena?):

I do not believe online education can replace a college experience, but the days of the old ways of teaching are numbered. Students have always been critical of large lecture halls where they are talked at, and declining lecture attendance is the result. But today we see that there is deep educational value in interactive learning, both online and in the classroom. Colleges and universities are beginning to use Moocs to make blended courses where online videos replace lectures, and class time is spent interacting with the professor, teaching staff and other students. Blended courses can produce good results.

Agarwal also talks about:

  • the learning analytics they can perform: “EdX and its partner universities are using the data we collect throughout a class to research how students learn most effectively, and then apply that knowledge to both online learning and traditional on-campus teaching.”,
  • changes to assessment “Another way technology has driven these revolutionary changes in education is through using artificial intelligence to help teachers effectively assess students’ work.”
  • and the release of the EdX platform as open source “In April we announced that our entire learning platform would be released as an open source on 1 June, and that Stanford University, along with Berkeley, MIT, Harvard and others, would start collaborating with us to continue to improve the platform. We are looking forward to universities and developers everywhere enhancing the platform that powers our edX courses.

These are some of the ways in which all institutions might benefit from the technologies the MOOC providers have developed – at the simplest level, using some fairly simple learning analytics on our own VLE, together with attendance monitoring would provide information on overall engagement of students and what we could do to improve that engagement and hence success.