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Are Courses Outdated? MIT Considers Offering ‘Modules’ Instead

08/07/2014

The Chronicle of Higher Education. August 5, 2014.

People now buy songs, not albums. They read articles, not newspapers. So why not mix and match learning “modules” rather than lock into 12-week university courses?

That question is a major theme of a 213-page report released on Monday by a committee at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology exploring how the 153-year-old engineering powerhouse should innovate to adapt to new technologies and new student expectations.

“The very notion of a ‘class’ may be outdated,” the report argues. That line appears in the context of online courses, but one of the report’s authors, Sanjay Sarma, who leads MIT’s experiments with massive open online courses, said in an email interview that the sentiment could apply to in-person settings as well.

Students want to pick and choose.
The end-of-the-class-as-we-know-it claim is based in part on an analysis of students who took free online courses offered through edX, the online-learning nonprofit organization that MIT and Harvard each invested $30-million to kick-start. The committee found that, of more than 800,000 people who registered for free courses, only about 5 percent finished. Skeptics of MOOCs point to such low completion rates as a problem with the format.

But the professors on the MIT committee that drafted the report argue that the numbers show that larger percentages explored significant parts of courses, which may be all they wanted or needed. “This in many ways mirrors the preferences of students on campus,” they wrote. “In a survey of students, approximately 40 percent of respondents report that they have taken MIT classes that they feel would benefit from modularization.”

The report imagines a world in which students can take online courses they assemble themselves from parts they find online. “Much like a playlist on iTunes, a student could pick and choose the elements of a calculus or a biology course offered across the edX platform to meet his or her needs,” it says.

Among the benefits noted in the report:

  • Students could retake any module they have trouble with before moving to the next concept in a sequence.
  • A modular approach would make it easier for professors to teach a course together, since faculty members could tackle a section rather than a whole course.
  • Updating a module when new information emerges is easier than redesigning an entire course.

A substantial number of professors seemed open to it.
Many professors said they were game to try the approach. In a survey included in the appendix to the report, 25 percent of MIT professors suggested that their classes “could benefit from a modular approach,” though only 10 percent said they had ever taught that way.

It’s worth noting that the engineering and science courses that MIT is best known for lend themselves to such an approach more than, say, a survey on philosophy. The appendix lists 34 courses at MIT that have been broken down into modules, and most are science or engineering courses, as well as a handful of business courses.

Could a modular approach work for in-person courses?
While modules may work online, professors involved with the report note that using a fragmentary approach is much more difficult in person. “The logistics of 10-minute lectures on a residential campus would be infeasible—the setup time and the time to walk between classrooms would be too great,” says a committee report included as an appendix. “Similarly, it is difficult to take classes from different universities. While students at MIT and Harvard do cross-register, the logistics of travel from one campus to another limit the extent to which this is practical. Online makes it possible for students to take classes from across universities more conveniently.”

But Mr. Sarma, of MIT, said in an interview that “we see modularity becoming a key part of on-campus experiences as well.”

“If the online module must be consumed in service of a project, say, then scheduling is not so bad, is it?” he said. “Imagine a project-based class where the students take the whole semester to build something but consume three out of five modules to get credit.”

It remains to be seen whether MIT adopts any of the ideas and recommendations in the report, which was 18 months in the making. An open-comment period is now beginning, after which leaders will decide whether or not to adopt a more unbundled curriculum.

A letter to the MIT community from the institute’s president, L. Rafael Reif, who helped form edX while he was provost, suggests that change is coming:

The past few years have brought mounting evidence that higher education stands at a crossroads. As with any disruptive technology, MOOCs have been viewed with enthusiasm in many quarters and skepticism in some. However, the underlying facts are inarguable: that the rising cost of education, combined with the transformative potential of online teaching and learning technologies, presents a long-term challenge that no university can afford to ignore.