September/October 2021Vol. XXXIV No. 1

Reflections on edX

John Guttag

The impending changes to edX prompted me to reflect on my own experience.

I helped develop one of the first courses offered by edX, 6.00x. Over the years the course morphed into two separate courses, and was rebuilt twice. Developing and offering these courses was one of the better experiences in my academic career. It’s easy to get caught up in the extraordinarily large number of learners who successfully completed the courses, and the even larger number of learners who sampled them. But my real source of satisfaction came from two other sources.

First, were the individual learners who took the time to write to thank me and my colleagues (Eric Grimson and Ana Bell) for the positive impact that taking these courses had on their lives. The emails from elderly people who spoke of the thrill of learning to program (and then impressing their grandchildren), from college dropouts who were inspired to go back to school, from people stuck in jobs they didn’t like who felt empowered to pursue a new career; inspired us to keep offering and updating these courses.

Second, were the changes that our edX experience led us to make in our on-campus offerings. After splitting the edX subject in two, we observed that the added flexibility it offered learners was appreciated. This led us to split the semester-long MIT subject 6.00 into two half-term subjects, 6.0001 and 6.0002. Many on-campus students take only one of these, and many students who take both take them in different terms. Our experiences with the edX subjects also led us to introduce multiple pedagogical changes into these residential offerings.

Like many who consider our edX offerings an important component of our professional activities, I was surprised to learn that edX was being sold to a for-profit company. It remains to be seen how this will work out in the long run. However, I am optimistic. Many years ago, MIT provided dialup Internet service, because there were no viable commercial providers. When it became easy and economical to acquire home Internet service from commercial sources, MIT got out of the business. The analogy is far from perfect, but perhaps online education is now at that stage where MIT doesn’t need to be involved in providing the technological or distribution infrastructure, and can focus on creating content.