Saturday, June 17, 2017

MIT For Credit edX Course Shows How to Market e-Learning

Nick Roll reports "For-Credit MOOC: Best of Both Worlds at MIT?" (Inside Higher ED, June 15, 2017). However, the MIT paper this report is prepared from never claims that this was a massive open online course (MOOC).

Marshall (2017) reports that MIT's Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department allowed students to undertake an edX on-line course, for credit. This pilot apparently went well but it is not the revolutionary "For-Credit MOOC" portrayed in the media. This is a conventional small, closed, on-line distance education course of the type which have been routinely delivered by universities around the world for decades.

The MIT pilot used material prepared for edX, with videos, text and exercises. Added to this were two instructors (professor and tutor) and the offer of one-on-one on-campus support. With only 31 students in the pilot, is much more instructor support than is usual for an on-line course.

Marshall (2017)reports that students signed up for the on-line course because of scheduling difficulties. This is something I found with my "ICT Sustainability" course, run at ANU from 2009 (Worthington, 2012). On-campus students signed up for the on-line unit as a way around scheduling problems. As Marshall notes, I discovered that even when the students are on campus and offered face-to-face sessions, few take up the offer. Also students get similar results for on-line and on-campus courses.

The most significant and interesting result Marshall found was that students found the on-line course less stressful. On-line distance education courses are usually considered to be more stressful for students. However, like Marshall, I found my on-campus e-learning students at ANU did not find the course stressful. This may be because the MIT and ANU students had already been admitted to a campus program which excludes the non-traditional students which distance education is specifically designed for. Also on-line courses, by design, are much more scaffolded than face-to-face courses.

The approach of using preprepared standardized courseware was developed in the era before on-line education, for paper based distance education. The Open University UK refined this approach and applied it to on-line courses, which had human tutors and in some cases the option of face to face study groups. MIT have applied essentially the same techniques which OUUK pioneered, which I used at ANU from 2009 and which many other open universities have applied over the last few decades. This work has been extensively researched and reported in the literature. It is not surprising that MIT found these tried and proven techniques worked.

EdX and MIT's approach to e-learning do not offer any new approach to education. However, what they do offer is a way to market this form of education to a new generation of students, their parents and government policy makers. Distance education, and its e-learning descendant, do not have a good reputation in the academia, amongst employers or prospective students. Despite decades of research to the contrary, distance and e-learning are seen as inferior. Open and distance education institutions around the world struggle for recognition and funding.

What edX and other "MOOC" providers have done is to provide a marketing buzz around e-learning to make it appear new, exciting and high tech. If that encourages students to sign, up and governments to support e-learning, it is a good thing. I suggest that traditional open universities need to learn from MIT's approach to marketing e-learning, while MIT should look to the literature on e-learning techniques they can apply.

ps: This approach to marking e-learning is similar to that used by the tiny house movement for promoting mobile homes. Manufactured mobile homes have a poor public perception, being associated with trailer parks (or a caravan in your parent's backyard) and low socio-economic status. The tiny house movement emphasizes custom design of homes by young professionals. The designs look like miniature traditional houses, not shipping containers, and are depicted set up in idyllic rural settings. While this is far from reality, if it encourages people to think about smaller homes, it is useful. Similarly, MOOCs are depicted as cheap and easy for anyone to do on-line, which far from reality.


Marshall, A E. (April 2017). A Preliminary Assessment of an MIT Campus Experiment with an edX Online Course: The Pilot of 6.S064 Circuits and Electronics, MIT Teaching and Leanring Lab, Retrieved from

Worthington, T. (2012, July). A Green computing professional education course online: Designing and delivering a course in ICT sustainability using Internet and eBooks. In Computer Science & Education (ICCSE), 2012 7th International Conference on (pp. 263-266). IEEE. Retrieved from

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