January/February 2022Vol. XXXIV No. 3

A Unifying Online Proposal for MIT’s Educational Mission Based on Open edX

David E. Pritchard

Introduction and Vision

MIT was born as an undergraduate institution to prepare students for jobs as “industrial scientists.” Today its vast impact is mainly due to its graduate students, postdocs, research staff, and research centers and laboratories – largely supported by outside funding. But even as its size grew 100-fold and its research and spinoffs dominated its mission – (to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship . . .) educating undergraduates remained in MIT’s blood, spawning textbooks, education spinoffs, the edX.org alliance with Harvard, the MIT Office of Digital Learning, MITx (for residential education), TEAL (Technology Enabled Active Learning) and OCW (OpenCourseWare), the principal carrier of MIT education to the outside world (excluding our graduates). The fact that MIT takes the education part of its mission so seriously is one of the roots of my deep affection for this place.

This semester, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve education at MIT and, more importantly, to vastly increase its impact beyond our campus.

The immediate catalyst for this is the sale of many assets of MIT-Harvard edX.org to 2U, Inc. (Nasdaq: TWOU). As a result, MIT and Harvard are challenged to set the course for the new Center for Reimagining Learning (CRL), a non-profit with a $600M endowment. Currently CRL’s principal obligation is to “steward and enhance the Open edX platform and tackle challenges in online learning.” (Open edX underlies lms.mitx.mit.edu, the familiar MITx that powers many of our large undergraduate courses generally in conjunction with Canvas.) Simultaneously, the faculty chair and the provost have charged a Nonprofit Entity Working Group to “update the entity’s charter, its goals, mission, research focus and governance . . .” and also created an Ad hoc committee on MITx and MITx Online [a new portal to share MIT’s courses and knowledge] to “solicit input and advice broadly on how online education should contribute to MIT’s mission of education and research . . . .” Finally, a new Dean for Digital Learning took the reins last month. Out of this maelstrom will emerge MIT’s educational impact on its students and on the world for the next decades. It behooves us to do some serious thought about how best to do it.

This article is a proposal to synergistically address these combined challenges.

The crown jewels in MIT’s undergraduate educational program are fully blended teacher-guided courses that integrate online materials and activities smoothly into a lecture + recitation + office hours environment. To spread these courses widely, we propose that CRL’s mission be centered on improving and spreading the best blended teacher-guided courses at well-endowed colleges like MIT to teachers and students at English-speaking colleges world-wide. This will involve modifying Open edX to help MIT teachers develop and deliver improved blended courses, then distributing them to teachers at other institutions who will deliver these (perhaps slightly modified) courses to their students while simultaneously receiving assistance from the online platform in teaching them better and more easily.

This proposal addresses the justification and implementation of this proposal as follows. We’ll first emphasize the proven superiority of blended learning and the obstacles that impede its widespread implementation, then show how CRL can modify Open edX so that teachers can demonstrably improve blended residential education at MIT and elsewhere while redirecting their efforts from course composition to interacting with students; then provide a guide for how CRL can enable teachers worldwide to teach their students using these full blended courses administered on the Open edX platform. We’ll continue by outlining a research agenda that will help MIT and other institutions improve their blended learning courses and conclude by arguing that MIT should begin important parts of this proposal immediately and unilaterally.

Blended Interactive Learning

Blended learning is employed in many GIRs (General Institute Requirements), most explicitly in those run in the TEAL format, and contributes to making MIT courses as successful as they already are. As used here, “blended learning” involves mixing face-to-face and online instruction, and typically includes pre-class assignments that inculcate sufficient declarative knowledge in students to prepare them for highly interactive lectures and recitations. Thus it’s an inversion of the roles of traditional pedagogy in which lectures are primarily for transferring information and homework for applying it that is sometimes called the “flipped classroom.” This enables classes to emphasize deeper learning with concept questions, peer instruction, group problem solving, and other interactive activities. These class elements are complemented by homework, projects, tutoring, and assessments.

Despite research [Hake, Freeman, and Chi] showing that interactive classes increase overall learning by about ½ standard deviation, blended learning is used far less frequently in U.S. and foreign colleges than the traditional lecture/recitation format. This is largely because presenting a fully blended course requires the daunting task of assembling and coordinating many moving parts. In a typical blended week, students encounter three prelectures, three interactive large classes, two interactive small classes (recitations), both online and written homework, a short assessment, with possibly a laboratory, project, or paper in the background. Professors at “rich” universities like MIT are required to teach only one course (e.g., 18.01) and can develop fully blended courses with the help of Digital Learning Lab Fellows, Lecturers, and graduate TAs. Unfortunately, making and administrating blended courses is beyond the capabilities of most teachers at four-year and two-year colleges where faculty are generally required to teach two or more courses without significant help (and adjunct professors often further burdened by teaching multiple courses at multiple colleges). This underlies the desirability of spreading easy-to-use quality blended courses to such venues.

Center for Reimagining Learning Will Spread Blended Learning

To help teachers bring the benefits of blended learning to their students, we propose that CRL should help develop and distribute assignable blended courses and course materials to teachers for use by their students in Open edX, thereby reaching the second and third of edX’ original goals: (2) Enhance teaching and learning on campus and online and (3) Advance teaching and learning through research (the first is Increase access to high-quality education for everyone). This would enhance on-campus learning and would predominantly involve typical college courses like our GIRs – both areas where MIT and Harvard have highly relevant educational experience. Furthermore, this shift of mission would involve research into blended learning where we could apply our skills at research while at the same time developing educational content and pedagogy to improve our own educational effectiveness. This shift would provide additional resources for MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and other “direct to remote student” modalities aimed at the edX first goal.

We argue that reorienting the mission towards teacher-directed learning is essential if CRL is to have an impact commensurate with its large endowment, simply because that’s where the students are: in the U.S. alone there are over 5000 two- and four-year colleges offering perhaps 20,000 degree programs; for MOOCs (Open edX’ original design objective) three large providers offer about 1200 degrees, many in specialty areas [MOOCs in 2020]. Worldwide, college enrollment is forecast to more than double over the next 20 years [Calderon 2018]. In view of these numbers, the proposed shift of mission for CRL may be the best route to reaching new learners.

Executing this revised mission first requires CRL to modify Open edX to make it a better platform for teachers to employ for their students. Then they would help MIT and other rich institutions put their fully blended courses (and components thereof) on this platform. Then CRL would make instances of these courses and materials available to teachers worldwide, allowing them to select which elements of a high-quality fully blended course they want to assign to their students. As a further step in making the Open edX platform helpful to teachers, CRL would support analytics and research that improve blended courses and help teachers implement them effectively for their students.

Changing the audience from the independent learners that edX currently targets to college teachers with their students involves exploiting the familiar (to faculty) models for distribution and dissemination of instructional materials in higher education – i.e., convincing individual teachers and/or adoption committees to require that their students obtain (and pay for) the required materials and subscriptions.

This is the standard market model for post-secondary education ($10B in the U.S. alone) – a market currently dominated by textbook publishers, online startups, and OER (open educational resources). This approach burdens students with renting or buying a textbook, subscribing to a homework system, and obtaining a clicker in different places. In contrast, CRL’s “all full blended course materials in one place” model is far more attractive, both to teachers and students. Furthermore, materials created by and branded with names like MIT or Michigan State or Olin College would have more cachet than Prentice Hall or Addison Wesley or Piazza – especially if we add the bullet point “analytics by MIT” (see Research section). This marketing model also recruits the teachers’ networks and professional societies (e.g., the American Association of Physics Teachers) to evaluate and recommend such blended learning materials. Finally, CRL could undersell the commercial solution by over 50%, thereby saving students lots of money and raising a substantial revenue stream with which to develop new courses and improve the pedagogy.

Distributing its blended courses and materials to undergraduates at other colleges advances MIT objectives on several fronts. First, it recruits good graduate students to MIT. Our courses will tend to be used for honors courses and at institutions with the highest ability students worldwide – just the students we want to attract to MIT graduate school. (Selective high schools are also likely to use MIT courses.) Not only is this exposure to MIT courses likely to increase their desire to attend MIT, but having applicants with a grade in these MIT courses allows us to better assess how they will do if admitted. Second, our undergraduate teaching will improve because MIT faculty can incorporate resources, modules, and pedagogies that are developed by our peer institutions, many with discipline-based-educational-researchers (see NAS publication on DBER) or in collaboration with faculty from education departments.

Finally, distributing whole courses complements MIT’s wildly popular OCW which functions as a “direct to self-learner” source of knowledge for millions of people worldwide. OCW also serves as a source of knowledge and course materials for teachers – indeed the OCW web page has a prominent For Educators link to spread MIT pedagogy and course development procedures. Clearly, distributing MIT’s blended courses to students via their teachers not only complements the “direct to viewers” model of OCW, but allows students worldwide to experience a more faithful and more complete version of our pedagogy and materials.

Modifying Open edX to Help Teachers with Blended Learning

To deliver the full blended courses CRL will need an online learning platform that contains all elements of each blended course in one environment. Clearly, modifying the existing Open edX platform and using the resources and courses it already contains is a great starting point.

Since Open edX was designed for “direct to student” MOOCs it lacks a role for a classroom teacher. The most needed modifications must give teachers a key role in the instruction of their class, reporting on current progress, summarizing exactly how last year’s course worked, and the ability to rearrange, edit, and add materials.

Informing the teacher starts with reporting where their class had trouble with last night’s assignment and identifying students who need immediate help – thereby improving instruction in tomorrow’s class and office hours. Open edX would also help teachers rerun last year’s course by identifying materials that functioned poorly (e.g., that were too difficult or time-consuming) so they could be improved or replaced.

Perhaps most importantly, the vast amount of teacher time currently consumed by writing and debugging new materials for this year’s class can (and should) be reduced by creating a curated library that allows reusing resources from previous courses in each domain (e.g., Introductory Newtonian Mechanics, Introductory Organic Chemistry, 18th Century English literature, . . .). These resources will reside in a library that contains both descriptive metadata (topic, subtopic, a one-sentence description.) and dynamic metadata (difficulty, time to complete, percentage of text reread, . . .). Together, these enable teachers to quickly find resources for replacing underperforming resources or even for making substantially new courses. Teachers will be able to incorporate these resources at any desired level of granularity – single resources, subchapters, modules, whole course elements (e.g., all recitation materials or homework, etc.).

Making these changes does not require a huge investment. With three months’ programming effort, my education group was able to program working interfaces for the report and rerun features, and also made a searchable curated library that combined resources from multiple courses while eliminating duplicates. We are in discussions with OpenCraft to incorporate selected library resources into a course with one click in Studio (the authoring engine for Open edX).

In several of my recent colloquia and education research talks I’ve polled the audience on what resources they most need to switch to blended learning. The most desired materials are those for interactive lectures and especially recitations. In many MIT courses instructor notes and/or PowerPoints and concept questions are available and could be incorporated easily to help with interactive lectures. However, if recitations are going to go beyond discussing homework problems identified as troublesome by report, materials (e.g., notes and activities) from successful recitation instructors must be collected and blended in with the course.

Such an enhanced Open edX is highly suited for extending MIT’s courses to off-campus students, for example to accommodate students temporarily absent for personal reasons, or taking Junior year abroad or working on a distant research project or internship. It would also permit many high schoolers to take MIT courses, whether from their teacher using Open edX or remotely from MIT, allowing us to recruit those most compatible with our culture. All of these uses would enable us to increase the number of graduates without expanding the physical size of our campus or the load on our faculty, while rewarding MIT with the likely possibility that the additional graduates would return gifts to MIT exceeding their tuition several times over.

Constant Improvement, Research, and the Future

A foundational objective of this proposal is research-driven improvement of education. This will be achieved by using the central design principle of science and engineering (which is infrequently applied to education), the feedback loop. Firstly, the rerun and reuse features described above enable incremental year after year improvement by identifying resources that don’t work well and replacing them with those that work better. By incorporating existing and new research-designed assessment instruments that are well-calibrated, each course can select and then measure the specific learning and general skills that it hopes to engender, then redesign the course to better reach these objectives. This is the process suggested by impactful education performers like Carl Wieman [Wieman 2017] and Grant Wiggins.

A small cadre of CRL education researchers and learning engineers could help teaching staff at MIT and elsewhere implement these procedures. As an example of the payoff, recent research shows that supplementing traditional online homework with many short deliberate practice exercises increases learning by an additional ½ standard deviation (beyond making the class interactive). Since making the classroom interactive dramatically improves learning, it seems likely that replacing the current lecture videos and textbooks by new research-improved software designed to foster a more interactive out-of-class learning experience would lead to significant additional learning gains. The combined effects of the approaches discussed would be fully blended courses of demonstrated educational effectiveness – a product new to the marketplace (and MIT).

Looking ahead, we’ll also need to improve the processes by which we make the courses and administer them to students.

We can use psychometrics and other analytics to find which types of resources and which individual resources engender the most learning (i.e., improvement on research-based assessments). We can use natural language processing to accept verbal responses, to grade and categorize them, and for classifying problems and exercises. And maybe for recasting existing problems so that it is more difficult for online cheating companies like Chegg.com and Course Hero.com to catalog them and give students the correct answers. Finally, as we accumulate more resources in a given domain, we can personalize homework by having the teacher specify the topics and subtopics and letting an AI agent pick the particular problems best suited to each individual learner. Ultimately the pre-class assignments and homework could emulate a personal tutor who prepares each student for each upcoming class or assessment in view of their current state of knowledge.

This proposal will beneficially change the role of teachers. Picture the teacher as conductor of a youth symphony orchestra whose players are his/her students. The conductor’s objective is getting the orchestra to play the best musical program. For some insane reason, the world’s conductors must only play their own music, hence must dedicate a huge amount of time to composing music that’s in fact highly similar to the compositions of the many other conductors. When implemented, this proposal will allow the conductor to mix in the best compositions from other conductor-composers. This will free time for the conductor to help individual players, and will improve the variety of the music that the orchestra learns to play and the quality of the overall program.

MIT Should Start Now

Without waiting for CRL’s plans to develop, I strongly recommend that MIT should immediately modify Open edX to give our teaching staff real-time feedback, suggested improvements to rerun courses, and reuse of materials from similar courses.  Then OCW should make assignable versions of our courses available to teachers at other institutions for use on their students, simultaneously enhancing OCW’s reputation and reaching potential future MIT students. These modifications would likely be widely adopted by MIT faculty and staff using MITx for blended learning, and several of them would be welcomed by current users making MOOCs. These modifications are relatively inexpensive to implement, and they would immediately improve teaching at MIT as well as improving each course that is rerun next year. Importantly, these advancements would be achieved while reducing the amount of new content needed for each rerun – likely amortizing their cost over a few years.

Once our improved courses are available on the modified Open edX platform, releasing active versions to teachers wanting to use MIT courses and/or materials would require little additional effort. This would dramatically improve the education of students at other institutions worldwide, and would be a tremendous avenue for recruiting talented students to come to MIT. MIT could make these courses available through OCW, which would supplement OCW’s current audience and increase its worldwide impact. Furthermore, OCW has the experience in readying courses for release (intellectual property, visual packaging . . .) as well as the market experience to make this new avenue of distribution another feather in its cap.

In summary, this proposal describes just one alternative for what we and CRL can do together (or we by ourselves). I hope it spawns discussions and better ideas that lead to a more impactful outcome.


Angel Calderon 2018 Massification of higher education revisited (https://www.academia.edu/36975860/Massification_of_higher_education_revisited)

Scott Freeman, Sarah L. Eddy, Miles McDonough, Michelle K. Smith, Nnadozie Okoroafor, Hannah Jordt, and Mary Pat Wenderoth, Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2014 Jun 10;111(23):8410-5. doi:10.1073/pnas.1319030111

Richard R. Hake, Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses

Michelene T. H. Chi & Ruth Wylie (2014) The ICAP Framework: Linking

Cognitive Engagement to Active Learning Outcomes, Educational Psychologist, 49:4, 219-243,

DOI: 10.1080/00461520.2014.965823

Kelly Miller, Kristina Callaghan, Logan S. McCarty, and Louis Deslauriers, Increasing the effectiveness of active learning using deliberate practice: PHYS. REV. PHYS. EDUC. RES. 17, 010129 (2021)

MOOCs in 2020. https://www.classcentral.com/report/mooc-stats-2020/

Carl Wieman Improving How Universities Teach Science: Lessons from the Science Education Initiative Harvard University Press, 2017

Editor’s Note: Dave Pritchard and his son Alex invented/developed the online Socratic Tutor called MasteringPhysics.com, Mastering Chemistry, Mastering Engineering, … etc. – the dominant homework system in science and engineering (2.5M subscribers/year; owned by Pearson since 2006). Pritchard’s education research group has published > 50 papers in educational research, mostly about what affects learning; and has run MOOCs on LON_CAPA as well as edX and consulted for both for-profit and non-profit education companies. He has consulted for both for-profit and non-profit educational organizations.