MIT 7.00x (Eric Lander’s Introduction to Biology)

Source: Higher Ed Watch, Jun 2013

The most important thing to understand about 7.00x is that it is a very close translation of a real MIT course. Unlike most colleges and universities, MIT has an actual undergraduate curriculum, called the General Institute Requirements. All students regardless of major are required to take six core courses: Single Variable Calculus, Multivariable Calculus, Classical Mechanics, Electricity and Magnetism, Principles of Chemical Science, and Introduction to Biology.  … MIT decides what you need to learn to get an MIT degree. … The courses are hard enough that, even given the kind of people who are admitted to MIT, the university has a policy prohibiting freshmen from taking more than four of them in one term.

The educational model for the courses is pretty straightforward: Students attend lectures twice a week along with several hundred peers, and read supplementary materials. That’s the information part. Then they’re assigned problem sets, or “psets,” to complete and turn in for grades. The problem sets are extensive and difficult and that’s where most of the real learning occurs. As one MIT student told me, “learning science is about spending hours banging away at something until you get it right.” There are weekly course sections where students meet with a T.A. and then a couple of midterms and a final. It’s a very traditional approach, pedagogically. Where MIT distinguishes itself is in making the lectures very good, the problem sets challenging, the examination standards high, and the curriculum expansive in scope.

So when it came time to put Introduction to Biology on the edX platform, MIT simply took the course it already teaches its freshmen and reproduced it as faithfully as possible.

Unlike many brilliant research scientists, Lander is also a really good teacher. He has a knack for connecting with students, even in a 100-person room. As a rule, I’m a reader — I usually find listening to people explain things to be frustrating, unless I can interrupt them and ask questions. But Lander’s lectures are fantastic. He has a terrific sense of narrative, informed perhaps by the legendary Princeton course in nonfiction writing he took from John McPhee. The course is a long, engrossing story of discovery, during which students learn the fundamental principles and intellectual unification of biology, which Lander represents as a triangle, the course’s “coat of arms”:

… what does this all mean for MOOCs?

First, the experience was a welcome reminder that real education is hard work. I spent about 15 hours a week for 15 straight weeks on 7.00x. And they were hard hours, full of careful note-taking and intense concentration and more than the occasional furrowed brow. 7.00x required, easily, 100 times more mental effort than Coursera’s Introduction to Philosophy course. With the exception of writing my master’s thesis, I don’t think I’ve worked longer or harder in any “regular” college course I’ve taken in my life.

The important question is: What’s the best possible MOOC, given the parameters of an entirely technology-driven educational environment with a zero or very low marginal cost of delivery at scale? How good can a free online course be?

The answer, based on my 7.00x experience, is very good — better, in fact, that almost anyone wants to admit. To understand why, it helps to examine all the different things that go into a course and the extent which they can be translated, adapted, or delivered in a MOOC environment. 

We tend to think of college courses in terms of content and action — these books required, this lecture delivered, that exam given. But the underlying structure connecting all of those things is educational design. A good course reflects countless decisions, from the shape and sequence of the syllabus to the nature of the assessments to the minute-by-minute flow of the lecture.

The lecture itself seems entirely replicable with technology. Yet I’ve heard a surprising number of people argue this point, suggesting that there’s something about being in the room that mere video can’t replicate. So I decided to see for myself. In April, made the trip up to Cambridge and attended what turned out to be Lecture 24 of 7.00x, live and in person. The room I’d been watching remotely for months turns out to be located inside a huge new Brain and Cognitive Sciences Complex (“Building 46”). I arrived early and settled into a seat in the back left, notebook and pen ready. Based on what followed, I can say this: live and taped lectures really aren’t the same. Live lectures are definitely worse.

the single most important thing to happen on the Internet over the last decade is the connection of people to other people. Two 7.00x Facebook groups spontaneously appeared as soon as the class started, and the LMS included discussion forums where students could pose questions to one another that were sometimes answered by TAs. I didn’t use the forums all that much. More interpersonal interaction might have saved me some frustration, but also the hard work of going back through concepts until I really understood the problems to be solved. I was reminded of Arum and Roksa’s findings on the value of solo studying. Sometimes there’s nothing to be done but bang away until you have it right.

Finally, there was Dr. Lander himself. At the end of the lecture I attended in person, a group of ten or so students gathered around him in the well of the lecture hall to chat and ask more questions. Lander is an optimistic, garrulous person, and a number of his students clearly had an intellectual crush. The same was true for the online community. From a student in Prague: “I feel almost like prof. Lander is a part of my family because I see him often on my computer.”  From Baguio City in the Philippines: “I want Prof. LANDER to teach me anything every week for the rest of my life…”

… think about how much of Eric Lander made the translation from 7.012 to 7.00x. All of his educational design is the online class, all of his great lectures, all of the wisdom he brought to bear on constructing the tests and problem sets and supervising those who helped him. I believe the vast majority of what Lander ultimately brings to Introduction to Biology – The Secrets of Life is represented in 7.00x. If that makes it a Robot Lander, so be it — Robot Lander is pretty great, and Robot Lander didn’t charge the 40,000 students who enrolled a dime.

That’s the wrong way to look at things. Now that we can build Robot Lander, the single most important question facing higher education is not: How can technology improve the cost and quality of the education that people provide to students? It’s: How can people improve the cost and quality of the education that Robot Lander and his ilk provide to students? The burden of proof is no longer on technology to show that it can make traditional higher education better in a way that’s worth the price to students and taxpayers. It’s the other way around.

It’s also likely that the quality of the best future online courses will improve faster than the typical human instructor–that comparison being the appropriate one because robot courses are much more replicable and scalable than in-person courses. In his final lecture, Lander noted that 7.00x is just a first experiment: “I’m sure that when we look back on this five years from now, we’ll laugh at how primitive it was,” he said. “But that’s what science is. You run experiments, and you get better.”

As tens of thousands of students participate in discussion forums, for example, one can imagine identifying the most commonly-asked questions and recording different variants of responses from Lander himself. Instead of a single problem set, the problems could change based on whether people get previous questions right or wrong. The OLI courses already do this through a process of “adaptive learning.” Future Robot Lander will move closer to passing the Turing test. The T-1000 model, in other words, is going to knock the heck out of the T-800. And five years is not so far away.

Does this mean that live human instruction will eventually become obsolete? Of course not. Educational needs and contexts vary tremendously. Some courses will be more easily translatable than other, some intellectual pursuits more amenable to technology-based learning. The question is: how much of what’s currently done by people can be done better for less money using technology, in what circumstances, and for who?

The question, then, is how much of the vast expanse of what currently comprises higher education can be taught using a technological foundation, at a higher level of quality than what students currently experience, for less money.

The 7.00x students roster is a cross-section of humanity that exceeds a diversity-focused admissions officer’s wildest dreams: doctors and medical students from South America, a group of high schoolers in Greece, a 72-year-old retired chemist living the Netherlands, a full-time homemaker in India, a Sri Lankan college dropout, a high school biology teacher in Oregon. A young woman who says, “My dad is letting me take this instead of my regular 8th grade science. I am 13 years old.” A Ukrainian software engineer, a nurse in the Philippines.

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