On Monday at the MIT Media Lab, MIT and Harvard University, the founders of the online-learning initiativeedX, convened a group of academic leaders and other online-learning experts for a daylong summit meeting titled “Online Learning and the Future of Residential Education.”
On hand were, among others, the presidents and provosts of MIT and Harvard; the provosts of the University of California at Berkeley, Cornell University, Carnegie Mellon University and McGill University; Anant Agarwal, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and president of edX; Daphne Koller, a professor of computer science at Stanford University and a co-founder of the online-learning company Coursera; and, video conference in on a huge screen above the stage, MIT alumnus Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, a popular online-learning site.
The conversation was broken into three keynote addresses and three panel discussions. But while the panels were organized around different topics, several themes recurred across all of them.
One was a questioning of the pedagogical efficiency of lectures. During the first panel, “Blended Models of Learning: Bringing Online to On-Campus,” Eric Mazur, a professor of physics at Harvard, cited a study (see PDF) by MIT professor of media arts and sciences Rosalind Picard and her students in which 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 flat lined during two activities: attending class and watching TV.
During the second panel, “Online Learning: Today and Tomorrow,” Khan echoed Mazur’s point. In 2006, Khan — then a hedge fund analyst — began posting video lectures on YouTube in order to streamline his efforts to tutor friends and relatives in math and science. The ensuing popularity of the videos led to the founding of the Khan Academy and Khan’s appearance on the cover of Forbes and on Time’s 2012 list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Nonetheless, Khan said, “This is coming from a guy who’s made, I think, 3,400 videos, but I don’t think they’re the most important part of what we’re doing.”