MIT Media Lab Summit Predicts Future Disruption of Higher Ed

The most highly-regarded names in online education came together earlier this month at MIT Media Lab to talk about what they see as the future of the medium. The summit, titled Online Learning and the Future of Residential Education, was made up of keynote addresses and panel discussions all making predictions about what higher education might look like decades down the road.

The panels looked at different ways that technology might transform education as we know it now. One panel was made up of a debate over how efficient traditional lectures are as a knowledge delivery mechanism. The panel – called Blended Models of Learning: Bringing Online to On-Campus” — included such luminaries as Eric Mazur, a physics professor at Harvard University, who talked about a recent study of student engagement performed by MIT professor of media arts and sciences Rosalind Picard:

… subjects were fitted with wristbands that measured skin conductance as an index of the “arousal associated with emotion, cognition and attention.” Mazur presented a figure from the Picard group’s paper showing wrist-sensor readings for a single MIT student over the course of week. The sensor recorded regular, strong spikes during periods of study, lab work and homework, but the readout flatlined during two activities: attending class and watching TV.

When Salman Khan, the founder of The Khan Academy, an online learning platform targeted at K-12 students, spoke at the second panel “Online Learning: Today and Tomorrow,” he agreed with Mazur that student engagement flatlined when they received purely visual information such as watching a video. Khan said he realized that even as someone for whom video creation is considered a hallmark, yet early on there was an understanding that making the videos was only part of the process. Integrating them effectively into the classroom was the necessary second step.

As several speakers pointed out, however, the advantages of interactive learning over lectures have been well-documented for decades, if not centuries. Indeed, Mazur referred to Samuel Johnson on the inefficiency of lectures.

Johnson wrote, well over 200 years ago, “I know nothing that can be best taught by lectures, except where experiments are to be shewn. You may teach chemistry by lectures: You might teach the making of shoes by lectures!” One audience member, a classicist, went back even further, citing Plato’s mistrust of books and his attempts to impress upon his readers the importance of dialectical engagement as the pathway to true knowledge.

Clayton Christensen from Harvard’s Business School, who gave the third keynote address during the conference, attempted to answer how this wave of technology was going to make a real difference. He said that the new approaches pioneered by Coursera, Khan Academy and edX represented a disruptive technology that was bound to turn education on its head, much like revolutionary innovations turned around manufacturing at the turn of the 20th century.

The internet has lowered the cost barrier for entry that has previously kept out those who wanted to compete with Harvard or MIT in the level playing field, which is driving disruption and innovation.

The suite of technologies that edX and others have introduced — video lectures, online discussion boards, automated grading algorithms, communal text-annotation programs, virtual labs and the like — constitute education’s extendable core. These technologies are now in their infancy, but like the steel produced in “mini mills” that displaced integrated steel mills, they will only improve in quality.